The Evolution of the Argentine-Brazilian Nuclear Rapprochement: Morning Session, Part 1

Professor John R. Redick
Associate Professor, University of Virginia

I am very, very pleased and deeply honored to be here. And I thank you very much Dr. Halavee, Dr. Levite, it is a great pleasure to be here to discuss the issue of the Latin American nonproliferation experience, in particular between Argentina and Brazil. I hope that what you hear today will prove of interest to you. As Dr. Levite said I am an academic, a student, and a teacher of these experiences, and so what you will hear from me will be somewhat more academic. From my friend and colleague, Ambassador Carasales, you will hear the diplomatic perspective from one who has lived and helped shape this very interesting experience. From my friend David Albright, the President of ISIS, you will hear from a scientist who has worked for many years with his colleagues in many regions of the world, including Latin America. And then from Dr. Marco Marzo, you will hear from a practitioner, from a professional, who is actually overseeing and administering the mutual bilateral inspection regime.

Let me echo what Dr. Levite said at the outset. The Argentine-Brazilian nuclear experience and their situation is in many ways unique to the Latin American region. But I believe that there are ideas and practical lessons that can be derived from that experience that may be useful to other regions. And indeed if this proves to be the case, I will be very pleased and grateful.

We have termed the relationship between Argentina and Brazil as a “rapprochement.” This is one of those words in English for which there’s no direct equivalent. But the rapprochement that developed between Argentina and Brazil applies both to their bilateral relationship, and to the way in which the two countries have become integrated into the nonproliferation regime.

This rapprochement, however, did not come easily, it did not come quickly, it was not inevitable. Argentina and Brazil had independently developed the nuclear fuel cycle. They had unsafeguarded nuclear installations, which had clear military potential. Their vigorous nuclear programs were accompanied by a nuclear theology grounded in opposition to the nonproliferation regime. Both nations for years rejected the Nonproliferation Treaty; they avoided full scope IAEA safeguards; they bitterly opposed efforts of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group; they refused to fully accept the Latin American Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, that is the Treaty of Tlatelolco. Both countries for many years asserted interest in developing so-called “peaceful nuclear explosions,” and for many years they engaged in questionable nuclear export activities, particularly to the Middle East.

These facts, when coupled with their mutual suspicion and historic rivalry, led many people to conclude (in most cases people outside of South America) that nuclear proliferation in South America was highly probable.

This did not of course occur, and in what I will say in my few minutes, I will focus really on three points. I will briefly describe the character of the relationship between Argentina and Brazil. Second, I will describe the nuclear capabilities and policies of the two countries. And third, I will give you my own thoughts as to why the two countries did a very dramatic reversal in their nuclear policies and have subsequently accepted the nonproliferation regime.

First a brief word about Argentine-Brazilian relations. Argentina and Brazil are rivals—and I think that’s the key word, rivals—for leadership in Latin America. Argentina broke from Spain in 1810, Brazil separated from Portugal in 1822. A few years later, the two countries fought the only war they have ever fought in their history. This was 1825 to 1828. That tells you how long it’s been since the two countries have shed blood.

In subsequent decades, however, and throughout the 19th century, the two nations often backed opposite sides in what has been a complex sub-regional competition in South America. In World War I, Brazil was the only Latin American country to commit to the Western allies; Argentina remained neutral. In the bloody Chaco war, 1932 to 1935, perhaps one of the bloodiest wars in South American history, Argentina backed Paraguay, Brazil supported Bolivia. And in World War II, Brazil committed troops to the Allied war effort, whereas Argentina, under Juan Perón, was neutral.

Throughout the 20th century, the relationship between the two countries has been characterized by rivalry, competition and suspicion. Controversy focussed on hydro-electric and water disputes. The competition has basically been in the Rio de la Plata area, which forms a border area between the two countries. There has also been competition for export markets in South America and about overlapping boundary claims in Antarctica. But hatred, ideology, and religion have never been part of the equation between the two countries. Instead, the rivalry has been serious but restrained. A former US Ambassador to Brazil declared it a gentlemanly rivalry, and I think that describes it well.

Military conflict has been avoided in recent years, but competition for military weapons systems—aircraft, missiles, naval forces—continued until very recently. In this context, the development of indigenous, unsafeguarded nuclear programs with a distinct military potential could have exacerbated the traditional rivalry between the two countries. It could have led to direct conflict. This did not occur, and ultimately the potential nuclear competition was converted into rapprochement and cooperation. In fact, I would argue that their nuclear programs were cleverly used by the civilian leadership to actually push the rapprochement in political and economic areas.

The nuclear programs of both countries were initiated in the mid-1950s, primarily on the stimulation of the US Atoms for Peace program. In Argentina, President Juan Perón created the Argentine Nuclear Energy Commission in 1950, and very quickly Argentina moved to nuclear leadership in Latin America. Argentina has three nuclear power plants. Atucha 1, near Buenos Aires is a 364 MWe reactor which came on line in 1974. It was supplied by West Germany. A second power plant, supplied by Canada, came on line in 1983 at Cordoba. Atucha 2, near Buenos Aires, will come on line in 1997.

Argentina also has an experimental and an industrial scale heavy water facility. It had a reprocessing facility that operated for a short time outside of Buenos Aires near the Argentine airport. That facility, and a larger one, were closed down primarily due to pressure from the United States.

Of greater interest, however, is the gaseous diffusion enrichment facility near the Andes resort town of Bariloche. This facility was opened in 1983, somewhat to the surprise of US intelligence, who thought it was a reprocessing plant. They were quite surprised when, in 1983, in the wake of the Malvinas War, the Argentine Nuclear Energy Commission announced that they had successfully enriched uranium there. This facility has not enriched uranium above 20%, but nonetheless, at the time it was widely interpreted in the US and elsewhere as a first step toward a nuclear weapons program. This perception was heightened by the fact that the Argentine Air Force at the time was actively engaged in development of an intermediate range missile, the Condor 2, with Egypt.

Let me turn now to Brazil. In contrast to Argentina, Brazil’s nuclear effort has been divided between a civilian-led program under IAEA safeguards and, in the past, an indigenous semi-secret parallel program dominated by the military. The civilian program, based on light water technology, includes a US-supplied 624 MW power reactor, near Rio de Janeiro. It has been nicknamed by the Brazilians with their characteristic humor as the “Lightning Bug” because it flickers on and off constantly. A second unit, a German-supplied 1300 MW unit, is scheduled for start-up in 1999. A third unit is on hold. The German units resulted from a 1975 agreement between Germany and Brazil, which was to have included the transfer of reprocessing and enrichment technology. This agreement provoked considerable international concern, although there was ultimately little transfer of sensitive German technology to the Brazilian civilian nuclear program.

While the Brazilian civilian nuclear program has experienced certain difficulties, the parallel program has been a very different story. That program was dominated by the military. It was undertaken in secrecy, had unclear, or certainly undeclared, objectives, and it was financed by surreptitious methods. The parallel program was initiated during the administration of General Geisel, a military president who led Brazil from 1974 to 1978. It really reached full flower during the last military president of Brazil, General Figuereido, who was president from 1978 until 1985.

The parallel program was coordinated by the former president of the Brazilian Nuclear Energy Commission, Dr. Rex Nazareth Alves, who reportedly administered a series of secret bank accounts to funnel money used in part to purchase foreign, principally German, technology. The extent to which foreign technology contributed to the parallel program still remains an issue of some controversy.

By most assessments, the nuclear portion of the parallel program had several dimensions, with the most important being a Navy-led program near São Paulo, to enrich uranium via the gas centrifuge method for use in Brazilian nuclear submarines. In 1986, the Brazilians did successfully enrich a small amount of uranium, initially at a lab-scale centrifuge facility at the University of São Paulo. This was followed by completion of the pilot-scale centrifuge facility at the Aramar facility near São Paulo. This particular facility has suffered quite a bit of budgetary cutbacks in recent years. The Navy also operated a small unsafeguarded lab-scale reprocessing facility that was closed down in 1989. There was a separate Army-directed project to construct a large graphite-moderated reactor, which, had it gone forward, would have had the configurations of a military production reactor.

The Air Force was also involved in the parallel program. In the mid-1980s, information appeared in the Brazilian press revealing apparent preparations of a nuclear test site in the central part of Brazil, known as the Cachimbo test site, on an Air Force base. It consisted of one or more deep shafts with the configuration of an underground nuclear test site. It lacked some of the supporting infrastructure that would normally accompany a test site, although it has been pointed out to me that this is not of any great significance. There is a great deal of ambiguity, however, about this particular situation, given that, at the time, Brazil apparently lacked sufficient fissile material from indigenous sources for a nuclear explosive device. In any event, Cachimbo was symbolically closed down by the former civilian president of Brazil, Collor de Mello, in 1990.

The weight of the available evidence, however, suggests that there was a dedicated project to produce a so-called peaceful nuclear explosive (PNE), with either the acquiescence or the explicit support of the former military government. This has indeed been confirmed in many cases. Until 1989, I would emphasize that both Argentina and Brazil maintained their right to develop PNEs and interpreted the Tlatelolco Treaty as permitting such detonations under controlled circumstances. Now a word about the nuclear policies of the two countries. To understand why their historic rivalry and indigenous nuclear programs did not lead to a bilateral nuclear arms race or perhaps a PNE race, I believe it’s necessary to look briefly back at the Latin American political environment of the early 1960s, at the time Argentina and Brazil were developing their nuclear programs. Parallel to that development, an important diplomatic process was under way to create a regional nuclear weapon free zone. Because of this, the nuclear situation in Latin America developed in a very different manner than it might have otherwise.

In September of 1962, Brazil, which was then under a civilian government, proposed the idea of a Latin American Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. At the time, Argentina was under a military government and was disinterested. But in October of 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, which gave political velocity to the idea. All of a sudden, the Latin American nations realized they were rather helpless pawns in a superpower conflict that was literally about to break out in their backyard. Therefore, the risk of superpower nuclear war became a major catalyst for the negotiation of the Tlatelolco Treaty that took place in Mexico City between 1963 and 1967.

A very interesting thing occurred about midway through these negotiations. In April of 1964, a military coup occurred in Brazil, and the Brazilian military took over and maintained power in Brazil for the next 20 years. Brazil’s policy in the Nuclear Weapon Free Zone negotiations in Mexico City went through a dramatic shift. Up to that point, they had been a leader in the effort. After the military coup, Brazilian policy became resistant to the idea of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. This had a very interesting result of putting Argentina and Brazil very much on the same wavelength, and the two countries began to cooperate to assure that the resulting treaty was not prejudicial to their developing nuclear programs.

The treaty was successfully concluded in 1967, but both Argentina and Brazil remained outside of the treaty for the next 25 years. However, while both nations were never parties to the treaty until very recent years, both countries agreed to take no actions contrary to the intent of the treaty. Brazil and Chile (which also stayed outside the treaty) both assumed an interesting juridical relationship to the treaty, even though they were not full parties to the treaty. I think this is a very important point with possible relevance to the Middle East, that perhaps we could come back to later.

The Latin American Nuclear Weapon Free Zone treaty set the political context for the Argentine-Brazilian nuclear rapprochement and agreements of 20 years later. It proved to be very important to the bilateral relationship between Argentina and Brazil. For the first time during the negotiations of the Latin American Treaty, these two suspicious rivals began to talk about these sensitive nuclear issues and develop common positions. The Tlatelolco negotiations became the first step in a long confidence-building process between Argentina and Brazil. The two countries were now on the same side of this nuclear policy issue. They saw themselves as pitted against the nonproliferation regime, which they viewed as insidiously trying to prevent the development of their nuclear programs. They viewed the nonproliferation regime as highly discriminatory. They viewed their shared interest as extending into common positions in opposition to the Nonproliferation Treaty, and this evolved into common support for each other’s nuclear export policies. By the late 1970s, the military regimes in the two countries began to encourage technological exchanges between their respective nuclear energy commissions, and these exchanges ripened into a formal nuclear fuel cycle agreement in 1980, following the resolution of a number of energy and water disputes in the Rio de la Plata area.

By the mid-1980s, the two countries returned to civilian government. The result was an acceleration of the bilateral negotiating process in the nuclear area, and the beginning of a greater willingness to accommodate the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Between 1985 and 1990, there was a great amount of diplomatic activity between the two nations, including the creation of a standing committee on nuclear policy, composed of members of the foreign ministries and the nuclear energy commissions. Also, there was the beginning of an effort to create a common market in the Southern Cone of Latin America.

A dramatic series of regional head of state visits to each other’s hitherto secret and sensitive nuclear facilities took place after democratization. Significantly, each of these visits that occurred in the 1986-1987 period was preceded by visits of representatives from the nuclear energy commissions. The two countries also began a practice of systematically informing each other in advance of significant nuclear events in their respective nations. In other words, the nuclear rapprochement was used by the civilian governments as sort of a point issue to hasten and deepen a process of economic and political rapprochement that was underway.

In 1990, Argentine President Carlos Menem and Brazilian President Collor de Mello met at Foz de Iguazu, which forms an historic border, and concluded a series of dramatic agreements that transformed the whole character of their nuclear relationship. These agreements included the creation of a bilateral nuclear counting and inspection system, the implementation of full-scope IAEA safeguards, adherence to the Latin American Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty, and the abandonment of the option to create peaceful nuclear explosions. This was a very dramatic policy reversal of significance to Latin America and the world.

Since 1994, the two Latin American nations have continued a process of integration into the nonproliferation regime (figure 1). The two countries are parties to the bilateral verification and inspection arrangement since 1991; to the Quadripartite Agreement establishing full-scope IAEA safeguards since March of 1994; and to the Tlatelolco Agreement since 1994 (an amended version). Argentina has joined the Nonproliferation Treaty. Brazil has not yet joined; however, they have not closed the door on coming into the treaty, quite the contrary. They are both now parties to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), to the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. Both have implemented dramatic nuclear export controls, which facilitated them coming into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the MTCR. What I’m describing is a very, very dramatic integration into the nonproliferation regime. And this process continues. In February of this year and then again in April, the two countries signed additional new agreements that touched the nuclear area and other fields.

Figure 1: Argentine and Brazilian Non-Proliferation Arrangements (1996)

Bilateral Agreement
(December 1991)
(December 1991)
Quadripartite Agreement (full-scope IAEA safeguards)Yes
(March 1994)
(March 1994)
Tlatelolco Treaty
(amended version)
(January 1994)
(May 1994)
(February 1995)
Participated in extension conference
Observer at extension conference
Applied by decree to exports, not imports, since 1994
Nuclear export controlsBy presidential decree, April 1992.
(Subsequently by congressional law, 1994)
Partly applied by presidential decree, August 1994.
New legislation proposed 1995; pending in Congress

Nuclear export controls By presidential decree, April 1992.
(Subsequently by congressional law, 1994) Partly applied by presidential decree, August 1994.
New legislation proposed 1995; pending in Congress
Now, why did the countries go through this reversal? I will give you some very general reasons. I believe the real motivating factor came principally from their evolving bilateral relationship. It was not principally a result of external pressure from the United States and supplier countries. As I noted earlier, this nuclear relationship first developed during the negotiations of the Latin American Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, it deepened with parallel opposition to the NPT and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, and in opposition to foreign efforts to prevent their access to sensitive technology. But then this traditional animosity became muted into a sense of shared victimization by the advanced nations. What occurred over time was the conversion of a largely reactive policy to perceived and real foreign pressure into active, bilateral nuclear cooperation, and then eventual accommodation with the nonproliferation regime.

Domestic political change was absolutely key to the process. It was fundamental in deepening the nuclear rapprochement and extending it to the nonproliferation regime. Key to this was the reemergence of civilian leadership in the mid-1980s in the two countries, which hastened and deepened the confidence-building process. Under the civilian leadership, the bilateral economic and trade issues assumed a much larger position in the bilateral relationship. Cooperation in the sensitive nuclear area helped accelerate this trend.

In addition, the newly empowered civilian leadership, both the President and Congress in both countries, sought to restrain the political activities of some in the military by integrating the national nuclear programs into the bilateral control and inspection regime. Presidential leadership was key to this process. It was a particularly important factor in pacing the cooperation and building nuclear trust. The previously mentioned reciprocal Presidential-initiated visits to the previously unsafeguarded nuclear installations that occurred in the 1987-1988 period had enormous symbolic importance in both countries.

None of this would have happened had there not been the support of key elements in both countries, particularly the foreign and finance ministries, the military, and the scientific establishment. Over time, the Foreign Ministries in both countries became committed to the bilateral political and economic cooperation. A nuclear arms race in the Southern Cone was viewed as prejudicial to broader interests, including the reduction of trade barriers and the development of a common market. More than any other domestic group, the Foreign Ministry of each country was sensitive to the diplomatic cost of the nations’ independent nuclear programs, and worked very hard with Congressional allies to convince the military and the nuclear establishment to change these programs. In Argentina, the Foreign Ministry had particular influence because the military was weakened due to the loss of the Malvinas/Falklands War. In successfully arguing for change, the Argentine Foreign Ministry was in effect arguing for an end of Argentina’s political isolation, which occurred as a result of the war. In Brazil, the motivation of the Foreign Ministry was somewhat different. A shift in the nuclear policy fit with a central Brazilian foreign policy objective—that of achieving world stature, and more recently, a possible seat in the U.N. Security Council.

The Finance Ministries and corporate interests were natural allies in this whole process. Both the Finance Ministries and private corporate elements came to view the independent nuclear programs as an important impediment to foreign investment and trade. As the civilian governments came into power in both countries in the mid-1980s, along with them came a commitment to open the markets in both countries to foreign investment. Access to advanced Western technology was seen as absolutely essential to modernizing the economy, and promoting development objectives. The Finance Ministries and corporate interest realized that in order to obtain this, the nuclear policy had to change.

In both nations, the acquiescence of the military to the rapprochement was also important. The military leaders in both countries became very wary of the implications of an independent nuclear program, because increasingly they viewed these programs as siphoning resources away from other military priorities. Ironically, the militaries in both countries became supportive of the nuclear rapprochement partly as a result of the Falklands/Malvinas War. That war, in effect, showed that they were both very much in the same situation, that they were vulnerable in an area of great importance to both of them—the South Atlantic—and that the inter-American defense system was not going to be sufficient to protect them. The idea of nuclear competition was simply inimical to the two, and military cooperation became a much more desirable objective. The amount of military cooperation that is developing between Argentina and Brazil to this moment is quite interesting and substantial, including joint naval and land military maneuvers, co-production of certain military weapons systems, and so forth.

I would also mention that the support of the scientific community is one of the less studied and most important elements in both countries. For many years, the scientists in both nations (particularly in Argentina) supported the concept of a vigorous national nuclear program as an important part of independent national development and economic advancement. However, increasingly scientists in both countries began to realize that continuation of independent nuclear program would also assure permanent denial of advanced technology from the U.S., Canada, Japan, and other Western European nations. Gradually, the scientists in both countries came to the view that joining the nonproliferation regime would help assure access to advanced technology.

Finally, I would emphasize that tangible nuclear arms control and disarmament progress by the nuclear weapons states was of pivotal importance to undercutting the theology, which had long sustained the independent nuclear programs in Argentina and Brazil. NPT adherence by China, France, South Africa, and the republics of the former Soviet Union; the conclusion of START I and START II strategic nuclear arms agreements between the U.S. and Russia; progress toward the Comprehensive Test Ban—all helped support the views of those in Argentina and Brazil who favored discarding their nations’ nuclear policies.

Now, in conclusion, the nuclear experience of Argentina and Brazil suggests that fundamental rivals can achieve a rapprochement in this highly sensitive area. Certainly, such rapprochement can best advance as part of a broader process of economic and political cooperation. However, and I think this is a different and interesting point about Argentina and Brazil, nuclear cooperation can be used to stimulate, encourage and reinforce cooperation in other areas. Nuclear cooperation was used deliberately and successfully in this manner by the Argentine and Brazilian leadership. Head of State commitment is important to the process of confidence-building measures. While the Argentine and Brazilian experience suggests that bilateral nuclear restraint can progress under both civilian and military leadership, the transition to representative democracy hastened and deepened the process, assured its acceptance and, I believe, its permanence. In that regard, the support of all the key factors of society was very important.

Now, I have not included direct external pressure as one of the main reasons for the change. I think the external pressure, in the case of Argentina and Brazil, was far more effective in the form of incentives rather than penalties. Certainly, the restrictive foreign export policies that the U.S., the Germans, the Canadians and others used contributed to the expense and difficulty of the Argentine and Brazilian nuclear programs. But this was not the reason why the two countries reversed their policies. In fact, I would argue that restrictive policies, if anything, reinforced the sense of victimization in Argentina and Brazil, and fueled what was a nationalistic nuclear theology. Ultimately, the change came from within and between the two countries, as Argentine and Brazilian leaders concluded that a reversal in nuclear policies would lead to a closer integration with advanced Western nations and would provide tangible benefits.

In conclusion, I suggest that there were certain processes that occurred between the two countries that were very important: the reciprocal head of state visits to nuclear installations; the advance notification of significant nuclear activities; the systematic technical exchanges between the nuclear energy commissions; and the creation of a standing committee on nuclear policy, which ultimately evolved into the bilateral inspection and verification machinery, ABACC. The existence of a nuclear weapon free zone agreement was also of considerable importance to the Argentine-Brazilian nuclear rapprochement, both as a bilateral confidence-building process and measure, and by creating a regional framework in which a dynamic and innovative bilateral inspection and verification regime could eventually develop and flourish.

Finally, perhaps the greatest contribution of the Argentine-Brazilian nuclear rapprochement is to underscore the importance of bilateral or regional machinery as a supplement or even an alternative to the multilateral nonproliferation regime. The creation of ABACC illustrates how an indigenous, bilateral verification regime tailored to the needs of the affected parties may be perceived as more suitable and politically acceptable than the multilateral regime seemingly imposed by the powerful nations. ABACC provided, in part, political cover for the Argentine and Brazilian leadership to legitimize a substantive policy reversal, to discard their independent nuclear theology, and to accommodate to the nonproliferation regime by accepting full-scope IAEA safeguards. In this manner, the ABACC model fashioned by Argentina and Brazil may be particularly suitable to other regional situations, where one or more parties has reason, or perceives they have reason, to distrust the global nonproliferation regime. Thank you.