Brazil and Russia consider deepening nuclear energy ties

BRASILIA, BRAZIL - When the Obama administration takes office on January 20, it will have a full foreign policy agenda. One of the most notable legacies of the Bush administration that Obama's government will have to address is eight years of drift in U.S. policy toward Latin America and Russia's consequent move into the vacuum created by Washington's inattention.

One of the most notable economic stories of the last decade has been the rise of the economies of the so-called BRIC nations — Brazil, Russia, India and China. Energy has been essential in the emergence of the four nations, but alone among them, Russia has not only substantial nuclear expertise but also access to substantial uranium reserves. Of the four, Washington has only been interested in fostering the development of India's civilian nuclear power program.

In a bilateral BRIC trading development to which Washington should pay attention, Moscow and Brasilia are drawing closer on the issue of civilian nuclear power technology transfer. While in 2007 Washington signed an agreement with India on nuclear energy cooperation, Russia is moving to cooperate with Brazil in a similar manner.

Moscow's interest in Brazil was evidenced by Rosatom head Sergei Kiriyenko's recent two-day visit to Rio de Janeiro. Kiriyenko headed a large delegation of Russian officials and businessmen ostensibly to participate in Rio's "Days of Russia in Latin America" festivities. Beyond the parties, Kiriyenko held talks with Brazilian officials and businessmen not only in Rio but also in the country's financial powerhouse, Sao Paulo, and the capital, Brasilia.

For both parties, increased nuclear cooperation is a natural fit. While Brazil at present has only two operating nuclear power station units, Angra-1 and Angra-2, the Brazilian government recently decided to construct a third. Nuclear power generation currently accounts for only 3 percent of Brazil's power output. Brazil's uranium reserves, currently estimated at up to 350,000 tons, are the world's sixth largest, however, and developing them would be an extremely profitable market opportunity for Russia.

Brazil opened its first uranium-enrichment facility under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2004 in the city of Resende, 100 miles from Rio. Brazilian government officials are now seeking to achieve complete autonomy in uranium enrichment to establish an indigenous nuclear power industry, and Russia is willing to assist them in accomplishing their goal.

Brazil has great hopes that by 2010 Resende will be able to furnish 60 percent of enriched uranium needed by the Angra-1 and Angra-2 nuclear power plants. Prior to the opening of Resende, Brazil's uranium enrichment was done abroad, primarily in Canada. Resende utilizes ultra-centrifuge technology developed by the Brazilian navy's Technological Center in Sao Paulo.

While concerns over Iran's civilian nuclear energy program have led Washington to press the U.N. Security Council to pass vigorous sanctions against Tehran, the United States has expressed no such concerns about Brazil because, among other reasons, Article 21of Brazil's Federal Constitution prohibits the use of nuclear energy for other than exclusively peaceful ends. Brazil made its commitment to peaceful civilian nuclear generation explicit by signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1998. Brazil is also a signatory of the Quadripartite Agreement for the Use of Safeguards, which has been in effect since 1994.

Brazil, along with 148 other nations, including nuclear weapons powers France, Russia and the United Kingdom, also signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but the treaty still has not taken effect because it has been signed but not ratified by a number of countries — including the United States, China and Israel — that possess nuclear weapons technology, while nuclear weapons powers India and Pakistan have neither signed nor ratified the agreement.

Kiriyenko is optimistic about the possibilities for increased Russian nuclear cooperation with Brazil, saying the technologies Russia has offered to Brazil include advanced techniques for deep exploration, mining and production of uranium, new nuclear power plants and "superconductor technologies" for transmitting energy.

According to the Rosatom boss, the first area for cooperation is exploring for and mining uranium, adding that if Brazil utilized Russia's advanced technology the country's exploitable natural uranium reserves could increase by more than 300 percent, which is "very good news for the world nuclear energy sector in particular."

The Russian-Brazilian nuclear rapprochement represents another opportunity lost to U.S. business due to the Bush administration's contradictory foreign policies, which combine overlooking Latin America while sending forth conflicting signals about civilian use of nuclear power generation by sharing nuclear technology with India, a non-CTBT signatory, even as it seeks international sanctions against Iran, which, like the United States, has signed but not ratified the document.

The door has not yet closed completely for the United States to enter the Brazilian civilian nuclear energy market, as the foreign capital needed for investment to develop the Brazilian nuclear industry will require Brasilia to draft and approve new laws.

At a time when the U.S. economy is officially declared to be in recession, repairing relations with nations south of the border would seem to be prudent economic policy, a view already expressed by government agencies, most notably in last month's report by the National Intelligence Council, whose "Global Trends 2025: a Transformed World" stated, "Growth projections for Brazil, Russia, India and China (the BRICs) indicate they will collectively match the original (Group of Seven's) share of global GDP by 2040-2050."

Brazil already has helped the United States develop its biofuels program; it might now be the time to return the favor in the nuclear field, lest that nasty resurgent Russian bear nibble off yet another piece of our Monroe Doctrine patrimony.


in Year