The Washington Post
Sunday, April 4, 2004; Page A01

Brazil Shielding Uranium Facility

Nation Seeks to Keep Its Proprietary Data From U.N. Inspectors

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer

The Brazilian government has refused to allow U.N. nuclear inspectors to examine a facility for enriching uranium under construction near Rio de Janeiro, according to Brazilian officials and diplomats in Vienna, home of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The IAEA and Brazil are at an impasse over the inspections, the diplomats said. Brazil maintains that the facility will produce low-enriched uranium for use in power plants, not the highly enriched material used in nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, Brazil refuses to let IAEA inspectors see equipment in the plant, citing a need to protect proprietary information.

The diplomatic standoff plays into fears that a new type of nuclear race is underway, marked not by the bold pursuit of atomic weapons but by the quiet and lawful development of sophisticated technology for nuclear energy production, which can be quickly converted into a weapons program.

Brazil's project also poses a conundrum for President Bush, who has called for tighter restrictions on the enrichment of uranium, even for nuclear power, as part of a new strategy to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

Nonproliferation specialists say that if the United States and the United Nations do not act to curtail Brazil's program, or at least insist on inspections, the lack of action could undermine White House calls for Iran and North Korea to halt their efforts to enrich uranium.

"If we don't want these kinds of facilities in Iran or North Korea, we shouldn't want them in Brazil," said former U.S. nuclear negotiator James E. Goodby. "You have to apply the same rules to adversaries as you do to friends. I do not see that happening in Brazil."

Brazil's shrouded technology at the plant in Resende belongs to a program considered legal under international treaties, but it remains subject to U.N. inspections, aimed at making sure it is not used for producing weapons-grade material for itself or customers.

The IAEA has dispatched inspectors to Resende in recent months, only to find significant portions of the facility and its contents shielded from view, diplomats said. Walls have been built and coverings are draped over the equipment, according to reports from specialists who have visited the plant, which is in the early stages of construction.

Brazilian officials maintain that the facility falls within rules allowing countries to develop the nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful uses. They say intrusive IAEA inspections are unnecessary because Brazil, which formally forswore nuclear weapons in the 1990s, is seeking a secure and inexpensive source of nuclear power, and has no lingering atomic weapons ambitions.

"We feel deeply bothered, almost offended, when suspicions are raised about Brazil," a senior Brazilian diplomat said.

The Brazilian official acknowledged that inspectors are not permitted to see all the equipment at the Resende plant, but he said the IAEA is free to conduct sensitive tests on the surroundings, as well as on uranium fed into the centrifuges and exiting the other end.

The coverings are "necessary to protect our technological breakthroughs," said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said the IAEA is "politically motivated to insist on visual access. We say that visual access is not indispensable.

"This is a natural process of negotiation," the official added, "which ought not to be the object of any fuss."

There has been no suggestion that the White House plans to prevent Brazil from perfecting its enrichment facility, although U.S. emissaries expect to push this month in Brasilia for better cooperation with the IAEA. "We hope that Brazil will be part of the solution. We're not trying to describe them as part of the problem," said a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We understand they're going to establish an enrichment capability [for nuclear energy]. It will be safeguarded."

A series of Brazilian statements about nuclear matters raised worries in Washington and Vienna about Brazil's intentions, however. During his winning campaign, leftist Workers' Party presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva criticized the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty as unfair. "If someone asks me to disarm and keep a slingshot while he comes at me with a cannon, what good does that do?" da Silva asked in a speech. He later said Brazil has no intention to develop nuclear arms.

Suspicions rose anew after da Silva's science and technology minister, Roberto Amaral, said Brazil would not renounce its knowledge of nuclear fission, the principle behind the atomic bomb. Brazilian officials quickly said Amaral was out of line, and he later resigned.

The da Silva government announced it will expand its uranium enrichment capability not only for its own power plants but also to sell low-enriched uranium for use in energy production in other countries. The program is to begin this year. Only a half-dozen countries now have such a capability.

Enrichment technology is not new to Brazil. The government, working with West Germany, developed a rudimentary ability to enrich uranium in the 1970s as part of an ambitious strategy to supplement hydroelectric power and natural gas. Two nuclear reactors, Angra-1 and Angra-2, now operate in the country's industrial belt.

Brazilian officials, who oversee one of the largest uranium deposits in the world, currently pay to ship the raw metal to Canada and on to Britain, where it is enriched for use in the power plants. If Brazil mastered the complete fuel cycle, it would save $10 million to $12 million per year, the government estimates, while laying the groundwork to sell to others.

"It is a very rich market that runs into the billions each year," the Brazilian diplomat said.

IAEA inspectors want to inspect for two reasons: to make sure Brazil is not making weapons-grade material; and as part of their investigation of global nuclear supply networks, including the one established by Pakistani scientist Adbul Qadeer Khan. Diplomats and nuclear experts said the IAEA wants to learn more about the origin of the program in Brazil and its sources of supply.

"If you have an enrichment facility, you want to make sure that the material isn't being enriched to a level that would cause concern," a Vienna-based diplomat said. "There are just a lot of questions at this moment which are unresolved. There's an impasse."

The IAEA is expected to report in June on Brazil's performance. Agency officials working on the Brazil project declined to comment for this story.

A separate issue facing Bush is where to draw the line on Brazil and other countries seeking a uranium enrichment capability. Such projects are permitted under the Non-Proliferation Treaty when the purposes are peaceful, but Bush has proposed a change.

Under his plan, announced in a Feb. 11 speech, countries that do not already produce uranium would not be allowed to do so. Rather, they would be provided nuclear fuel at a reasonable cost -- and only if they also agreed to rigorous IAEA inspections.

For governments that already considered the treaty unfair, Bush's proposal seemed only to reaffirm the bias in favor of countries that already possessed atomic technology when the treaty was crafted in the 1960s. Three countries that later built nuclear weapons -- India, Pakistan and Israel -- did not sign.

"We don't like treaties that are discriminatory in their intent," said the Brazilian official, who described Bush's nuclear fuel proposal as "unacceptable to Brazil, precisely because we see ourselves as so strictly committed to nonproliferation, to disarmament, to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy."

Iran has made similar statements, as has North Korea, which U.S. intelligence experts believe has built one or two nuclear weapons. Iran and North Korea had secret enrichment programs, with Iran's hidden for 18 years. North Korea evicted U.N. inspectors and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In Brazil, by contrast, one U.S. official said, "we don't have any reason to think there are problems." A diplomat in Vienna said: "It's not Iran, it's just not."

Yet permitting Brazil to proceed with the kind of enrichment program that Bush wants to limit, several analysts said, would threaten to weaken efforts to make common rules. Lawrence Scheinman of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies said: "Brazil going forward could give cause to countries like Iran to do the same."

"It makes mincemeat of the president's speech," said Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank. He noted that Bush said countries must agree to rigorous IAEA inspection to get international help. "It sets a hell of a precedent if they go through with an enrichment facility."

© 2004