Going Nuclear, Staying Nuclear: Brazil and South Africa

Although nuclear proliferation in “developing” states has long been an international concern, evidence revealed through statistical tests does not support claims that nations develop civilian nuclear power in order to supplement the development of nuclear weapons programs. Nevertheless, it is true that states with civilian nuclear programs might have an easier time with the manufacture of nuclear bombs than states without them (see Goldemberg, ‘Nuclear Energy in Developing Countries’). For instance, the development of nuclear energy helped lead to nuclear proliferation in apartheid South Africa (see van Wyk, ‘Apartheid’s Atomic Bomb: Cold War Perspectives’). Such was not the case, however, with fellow BRICs nation, Brazil.

Contemporarily, transnational networks greatly shape technology’s power, which includes many of the aspects of nuclear energy development around the world. There are manifold imbalances, patterns, modes of distribution, etc.; many different narratives exist that are as complex as their corresponding nations (see Hecht, ‘The Power of Nuclear Things’). Importantly, developing parts of today’s energy-driven and globalizing world are home to some of the fastest progress in nuclear plant development (see Khlopkov, ‘Prospects for Nuclear Power in the East after Fukushima and the Arab Spring’).

Several factors help explain why nations like Brazil and South Africa go nuclear and endeavor to remain nuclear states, including economic development, growth, energy security, national security, and nuclear development.

The diversification of a nation’s energy supply is particularly important. Diversification might mitigate issues of energy dependence in the case of especially developing nations, and nuclear energy might contribute greatly. Even so, the construction of a nuclear power plant, say, will not guarantee the alleviation of all a nation’s energy problems. Additionally, there are instances (e.g., Europe’s 2006 energy shortages caused by Russia’s denial of natural gas to Ukraine) which suggest that the “perceived consequences of energy dependence may be greater than the actual costs” (see Fuhrman, ‘Splitting Atoms: Why Do Countries Build Nuclear Power Plants?’).

The economics involved matter greatly. Financing the initial investments required by nuclear plants poses a challenge for any nation, “industrialized” or not. In fact, for most “developed” countries, nuclear power has only expanded when governments have facilitated private investment. This practice flies in the face of the strong market liberalization policies currently implemented, or force-fitted, around the world.

It is important to note that nuclear electricity’s global share did not exceed seventeen percent in the twenty years following the 1986 Chernobyl accident. And in the unfolding global nuclear future, anything beyond modest growth in Asian nuclear markets – where growth is projected as most likely to occur – seems dubious. The paucity in political support, coupled with “the economics of recently deregulated markets,” make aggressive growth unlikely (see Waller’s chapter in Atoms for Peace: A Future after Fifty Years?).

For countries like Brazil and South Africa, future developments in nuclear energy will most likely encompass economic obstacles. Allocating already scarce governmental resources can be a major impediment. Financial authorities cannot always readily dispose of, or justify, the subsidization of nuclear energy at the expense of other, more pressing needs (e.g., health, education, poverty reduction, etc.).

Pre-Fukushima “Nuclear Renaissance”

Whether nations go nuclear for energy security or to develop weapons for national security, the technology required to peacefully apply nuclear energy (e.g., the production of electricity) is not so different from that used in nuclear weapons manufacture. To function, nuclear reactors require enriched uranium, and plants that enrich reactor fuel in excess of eighty percent can provide material for weapons. Hence, despite any potential commercial interest, the “fundamental” contradiction that dates back to Eisenhower in 1953 continues today; that is, avoiding nuclear weapons proliferation whilst promoting the propagation nuclear reactors in several developing countries.

America’s more recent interest in global nuclear energy development takes root in former United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 Atoms for Peace program. This program offered US assistance to countries interested in civilian nuclear energy. Some countries received donated reactors, which necessarily required highly enriched uranium for research, industrial, and medical purposes.

Despite the obvious proliferation concerns that this move entailed, nuclear technological spread was inevitable. Eisenhower’s famous Atoms for Peace speech – delivered at the United Nations General Assembly in New York more than sixty years ago – attempted to constrain nuclear technological use to peaceful aims. The Atoms for Peace program had commercial motivations as well, including the establishment of new markets for US-manufactured nuclear equipment (see Goldemberg; Eisenhower’s 1953 ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech).

Prior to Japan’s March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station disaster (3/11), the promotion of a “renaissance in nuclear energy” manifested in America’s Energy Policy Act of 2005. The 21st century US sought to attract the private sector with incentives, and thereby spark the creation new power reactors. In addition, the international struggle against various energy-related problems implicated the potential resurgence of nuclear energy at the time. Topical issues included global warming, potential issues with carbon taxes on the use of fossil fuels, the reduction or elimination of natural gas and other fossil fuel dependence, and energy security (see Adamantiades and Kessides, ‘Nuclear Power for Sustainable Development: Current Status and Future Prospects’).

Researchers analyzed the possible global renaissance in nuclear power in the years leading up to 3/11. After two decades of stagnation, from 1986 to 2005, global interest in nuclear power’s generation of electricity had resurged. Politicians hummed with the imminent significance of energy security in the first decade of the 21st century. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair averred in 2006 that “energy security will be almost as important as defense,” and future United States President Barack Obama proposed energy security as “one of the great American projects of the 21st century.

It should be recalled that, in the last century, reactors were installed in nine developing nations in order to generate power: Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Iran, Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa, and North Korea. Of these, five – China, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and North Korea – developed nuclear weapons. Only South Africa would eventually dismantle theirs in the early 1990s. And in 1991, Argentina and Brazil abandoned programs that might have culminated in weapons.

More than forty developing nations approached United Nations officials and communicated their interest in nuclear power programs just prior to 3/11 (see Kaplan, ‘Developing Countries Eye Nuclear Power’). Nuclear technology has often been viewed emerging states as a “passport to the first world,” and to what Goldemberg calls “the bureaucratic self-aggrandizement of the nuclear establishment…” Indeed, a kind of “status” and prestige accompany the development and mastery of nuclear technologies. Nevertheless, desires to expand nuclear energy after 3/11 continue, and nuclear expansion in Brazil and South Africa evinces this.

Brazil and South Africa certainly played a role in the anticipated, pre-3/11 nuclear renaissance: In September 2008, Brazil’s ranking energy official announced his country’s plans to build as many as sixty nuclear power plants within the next fifty years; in June 2008, the South African Cabinet green-lighted an “ambitious nuclear energy policy,” which included a 20 GW installation of nuclear power (see Associated Press, ‘Brazil plans to build dozens of nuclear plants over next 50 years’). Ultimately, any post-3/11 nuclear ambitions in both Brazil and South Africa are not without their own unique and corresponding histories, which explain their respective relationships with nuclear energy development.

Going Nuclear: Brazil

Brazil’s interest in nuclear research dates back to the first studies performed on nuclear fission in the 1930s. That same decade, the world became aware of Brazil’s substantial quantities of uranium deposits and monazite sands, which contain thorium required by the nuclear process. In 1940, Brazil made its first nuclear agreement with the United States (US) and sold the monazite sand from its beaches (see Krasno, ‘Non-Proliferation: Brazil’s Secret Nuclear Program’; Füllgraf, ‘A Bomba Pacífica: O Brasil E Outros Cenários Da Corrida Nuclear’).

Brazil’s foreign policy has afforded nuclear issues special consideration since 1946, when the country participated in the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. For the last six decades, and during which time Brazil has played host to democratic and military governments alike, the country has maintained its initiative to develop “an autonomous nuclear industry through the acquisition of technology” to enrich its uranium (see Patti, ‘Brazil and the Nuclear Issues in the Years of the Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva Government’).

To realize its nuclear ambitions of self-sufficiency, Brazil devised a program that was at once political, institutional, and scientific. Admiral Alvaro Alberto led Brazil’s program with support from the country’s nuclear scientists. Together, they piloted the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq). The CNPq was vary active in the development of Brazil’s nuclear energy program. It espoused policies intended to guard Brazil’s uranium deposits, develop and generate nuclear power, capacitate personnel, and shoulder the task of additional research and development.

At the time, Brazil mainly exported nuclear materials to the US, which were associated with “training and transferring nuclear technology and hardware” (see Adler, ‘State Institutions, Ideology, and Autonomous Technological Development: Computers and Nuclear Energy in Argentina and Brazil’). Then, the Comissão Nacional de Energia Nuclear (CNEN) – created in 1956 under Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek – assumed most political duties previously handled by the CNPq. The overarching vision for the CNEN was to work with other Brazilian nuclear research institutes: the Instituto de Pesquisas Radioativas (later the Centro de Desenvolvimento de Tecnologia Nuclear); the Instituto de Engenharia Nuclear; the Instituto Militar Engenharia; and the Instituto de Pesquisas Energéticas e Nucleares.

Despite perhaps best intentions, ideological differences amongst the institutions exacerbated the disconnect brought on by their geographically distant and separate locations. Although it began as an independent agency responsible only to the president’s office, the CNEN was not as stable or autonomous as possible; it transferred to Brazil’s then-newly established Ministério das Minas e Energia in 1960, losing all autonomy.

Under Brazil’s military regime (1964 to 1985), and also under the Jose Sarney administration (1985 to 1990), Brazil developed a nuclear “parallel program.” Its decision to build a nuclear parallel program was further bolstered by visions of technological autonomy. The history of this program dates back to the 1950s, when West Germany was prohibited from pursuing nuclear enrichment at levels conducive to manufacturing a bomb. Alberto approached West Germany on behalf of Brazil’s nuclear program, and German scientists accepted the offer to do research abroad absent the restrictions placed on them at home.

Alberto’s plan for nuclear enrichment required importing German ultracentrifuges. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) discovered the plan, informed the British, and the centrifuges were seized one day prior to shipment. The University of Sao Paulo eventually provided cover for the centrifuges, which finally reached Brazil. And when the US and the British prohibited West Germany from selling Brazil the necessary centrifuge enrichment process, the Germans helped Brazil with enrichment through a clandestine agreement on “jet nozzle” technology (see Gall, ‘Atoms for Brazil, Dangers for All’).

From 1967 to 1968, the Brazil’s economy was fastened to that of the international system by the ruling military junta, which also attached the country’s nuclear institutions to its electric sector. Brazil’s Military government did these things to keep local scientists from participating in decision-making processes, to end the country’s progressing domestic nuclear program, and to pursue the purchase of an American light-water reactor (LWR).

In 1968, CNEN was tasked to cooperate with Electrobras – a leading Brazilian electric utilities company – to build a nuclear power plant at the site Angra dos Reis. In 1971, Brazil signed contracts with Westinghouse to secure technology. Four years later, contracts with West Germany’s Kraftwerk Union (partner to Siemens) advanced plans to build yet multiple other power plants. Due to issues of nonproliferation, the US had blocked Brazil from enriched uranium supplies. To make matters worse, the 1973 global oil crisis hit at a time when Brazil was heavily dependent on the supply of foreign oil. The overall situation alarmed Brazil’s ruling military government.

In the end, political and ideological discord – along with rising interest rates, promising hydroelectric capacity, and the heavy costs of nuclear power – left Brazil little choice but to abandon most of its agreement with West Germany.

By 1975, Brazil’s known uranium stores had increased significantly; the country already possessed amounts of thorium. Progress did not come quickly enough from working with West Germany, and Brazil’s ensuing choice to purchase and build American LWRs made it dependent on American technologies involved with the enrichment of uranium for LWRs. Brazilian authorities had gambled on jet-nozzle technology yet to be proven on an industrial scale, and by 1987, the country’s scientists effectively enriched uranium with domestic technology (see Riding, ‘Brazil’s Leader Reports Success in the Enriching of Uranium’).

For decades, Brazil actively opposed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It segregated countries with nuclear military capabilities from those without them and mirrored the global order promoted by Cold War superpowers after World War II (WWII). As the bipolar global system came to an end in the early 1990s, however, Brazil’s attitude toward non-proliferation agreements changed. The democratization and alteration of the international political system came to include a Brazil whose signature graced the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1998.

Going Nuclear: South Africa

South Africa became an important exporter of uranium by the end of WWII. It even provided the US with supplies for the Manhattan Project in Alamogordo, New Mexico, test site of the first nuclear device ever detonated. In turn, help from the US and others enabled South Africa to initiate its civilian nuclear research and development program in the twenty years following WWII. South Africa capacitated its scientists and reactor technicians and provided fuel for its own nuclear research reactor. Civilian nuclear activities aside, the apartheid state’s military potential for a nuclear weapon was unquestionable.

By participating in America’s commercially unviable Peaceful Nuclear Explosives (PNEs) research, South African scientists came to understand that no practical distinction between PNEs and nuclear weapons existed. The PNEs research project had thus successfully advanced the know-how of future proliferators (see McNamee and Mills, ‘Denuclearizing a Regime: What South Africa’s Nuclear Rollback Might Tell Us About Iran’). Together, the apartheid regime’s overt nationalism, laager complex (or, “circle the wagons” complex), and fears of Soviet-sponsored communist and black nationalist offensives all informed South Africa’s resolution to build the bomb (see Vatcher, ‘White Laager; the Rise of Afrikaner Nationalism’; Purkitt et al., ‘South Africa’s Nuclear Decisions’).

During the 1960s, apartheid leaders cited Soviet- and Chinese-backed “black guerrilla movements” as reason enough to increase defense expenditures six times. South Africa’s regime increased the militarization of its secretary of defense, making the civilian post a military one. At the same time, the country’s parliament failed to preserve oversight of the military. This political amalgam only accentuated threat perceptions, which, along with few domestic checks on apartheid leaders and scientists, also led to South Africa’s production of nuclear weapons.

When NPT negotiations began in Geneva in 1964, former South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd withheld his country’s participation. Then, B.J. Vorster, Verwoerd’s successor, rejected the NPT in 1970. Instead, he heralded South Africa’s new uranium enrichment process and invited the collaboration of “non-Communist countries” to develop it. Vorster affirmed that South Africa would not limit itself to “promotion of the peaceful application” of its nuclear development (see Purkitt; Stumpf, ‘South Africa’s Nuclear Weapons Program: From Deterrence to Dismantlement’).

In a side note, South Africa also left the British Commonwealth by 1972, continuing its participation in only two international organizations (formerly numbering forty), and thus becoming an increasingly isolated state with growing nuclear ambitions (see Geldenhuys, ‘Isolated States: A Comparative Analysis’).

America’s NPT sanctions in the late 1970s likely influenced South Africa’s secret nuclear weapons program. Even so, evidence suggests that technical achievements, homegrown expertise, and high-level talks with cabinet leaders, the South African Defense Force (SADF), and South Africa’s Atomic Energy Board (AEB) chief all informed Vorster’s vision for developing such a program as early as 1974. Vorster’s combination of nuclear power and nuclear weapons decisions reformulated South Africa’s ongoing nuclear weapons research so that a secret program might facilitate the procurement of highly enriched uranium without totally estranging the West.

South Africa also developed a furtive relationship with Israel, which included the ratification of as many as seven “covert bilateral military and nuclear agreements” on materials exchanges, testing coordination, and advanced weapons systems development (see Hersh, ‘The Samson Option’). And by 1982, the apartheid regime produced South Africa’s first “bomber-deliverable” nuclear weapon. It was similar to the “gun-type” design dropped by American forces on Hiroshima, Japan during WWII.

South Africa accelerated its nuclear weapons production until late 1989, by which time the country possessed six nuclear warheads, a uranium enrichment facility, and enough uranium for a seventh bomb already in production. The decline in Soviet power, peace agreements along northern borders, and a Cuban military withdrawal from the zone hinted toward an improvement in South Africa’s national security. During this time, former South African President F. W. de Klerk clandestinely worked to dismantle his country’s nuclear weapons. South Africa would not easily normalize internal politics and gain international acceptance for doing so with the lingering “liability” of nuclear weapons.

De Klerk’s 1989 election, coupled with the increasing likelihood that South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) party might assume political control, worried the US. Washington did not want the ANC in control of nuclear weapons. Speculation that the US threatened to handle South Africa as a “hostile nation” – should it not pursue disarmament – implies that de Klerk acquiesced to dismantling the country’s nuclear weapons to appease the Americans rather than normalize domestic and international relations.

Nuclear “Imaginaries” in Brazil and South Africa

Researchers have argued that “the relationship of science and technology to political power has tended to remain undertheorized” (see Jasanoff and Kim, ‘Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United Sates and South Korea’). This is unfortunate because identifying the aims of publicly endorsed science and technology is a critical factor in the nuclear future of nations like Brazil and South Africa. Related questions pertain to the public good, the beneficiaries of science and technology investments, democratic participation in science, and the resolution of controversies regarding the swiftness and trajectory of scientific research and development. In fact, these issues are paramount to consider because science and technology “encode and reinforce” specific conceptions of what a nation strives to embody.

Jasanoff and Kim identify their concept of “sociotechnical imaginaries” as facilitators for the exploration of “sources of long-lasting cross-national variations in [science and technology] policy.” They use the “imaginaries” concept in order describe attainable national futures and to prescribe the “futures that states believe ought to be attained.” Thus, imagination aids in establishing social order, and in the investigation of the abovementioned issues related to the relationships that science and technology have with political power.

Jasanoff and Kim further state that national imaginations can “penetrate the very designs and practices of scientific research and technological development,” and thereby shape not only narrow issues but wider ones concerning “a nation’s past, present and future.” At the state level, “national sociotechnical imaginaries” can be defined as “collectively imagined forms of social life and social order reflected in the design and fulfillment of nation-specific scientific and/or technological projects.” Such descriptive parameters extend to both Brazil and South Africa in telling albeit different ways. Furthermore, the past nuclear identity of each nation comes into focus through the “imaginaries” lens.

For Brazil, nuclear development before the end of the Cold War was driven in part by the military government’s economic ends. There were clearly aspirations for attaining energy independence while furthering scientific and technological prowess as a Latin American political power. Included in these imaginaries were Brazil’s freedom to reject the NPT and the Cold War’s dichotomous international paradigm imposed upon many developing parts of the world.

For South Africa, the Cold War also played a key role—as did fear of neighboring security threats from communist and black nationalist forces. No matter how significant/insignificant, fear of reprisal from the US also played a part in driving South Africa’s nuclear weapons program underground. And whereas Brazil worked covertly with West Germany to develop nuclear energy, South Africa connected with Israel, another state heavily conditioned by national security imperatives.

For both nations, nuclear development entailed desires to bolster indigenous technologies, nuclear/technological know-how, and processes for enriching uranium. Furthermore, nuclear developments were partly conditioned by looming international politics and Cold War superpowers, especially the US. Whatever the stage of governance (i.e., military, democratic, apartheid, or liberal), the futures that Brazilian and South African national imaginaries had envisioned from a state level involved energy security and national security, and military control played a key role in both arenas.

Staying Nuclear

In any country, nuclear power ultimately encompasses various elements: reactors, technologies, risk models, safety mechanisms, economics, politics, history, etc. Together, these all form a mesh of “irreducible linkages.” For Brazil and South Africa, nuclear energy surely surpasses the technical and has for a long time involved regulatory, governmental, industrial, corporate, and public realms and institutions. Ultimately, the post-3/11 nuclear futures of Brazil and South Africa may prove as different as their twentieth-century nuclear histories.

Brazil After acceding to the treaty, Patti writes that Brazil began “adhering to the regimes of nuclear non-proliferation” and became one of the global community’s “most significant supporters of global disarmament and denuclearization.”

Today, Brazil’s importance in the international system grows, and efforts towards non-proliferation underscore the continuity of Brazil’s foreign policy. Brazil also defends its trajectory of nuclear technology that previous governments helped establish. Additionally, Brazil’s traditional NPT opposition has transformed, and Brazil has worked to modify an “unequal international system” by participating in it. Participation in major powers summits like BRICs and the G-20, and also its serious multi- and bilateral interactions with fellow developing nations, all strengthen Brazil’s position as a key actor in an ever-changing international political system.

Belonging to the “club of nuclear civil states” reaffirms Brazil’s growing power, especially as it nears achievement of an old goal: “the national industrial enrichment of uranium…” Currently, Brazil’s democratic government might harmonize its nuclear ambitions with “domestic, regional and international commitments for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons” (see Patti). Whether or not it will do this is another matter.

Moreover, along with renewable energy sources, nuclear energy might just be a “quick start” for Brazil to implement while tackling deforestation emissions, its principle source of GHGs (see Vaz de Oliveira, ‘The Future Role of the Nuclear Energy in Brazil in a Transition Energy Scenario’). Additionally, lessons from Fukushima should also encourage Brazil to address the disposal of radioactive waste with “transparency, seriousness and competence,” despite additional costs arising from any necessary improvements to its nuclear energy system (see dos Santos et al., ‘The Importance of Nuclear Energy for the Expansion of Brazil’s Electricity Grid’).

South Africa In the end, South Africa dismantled its weapons in the course of a year. By July 1991, the country acceded to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. South Africa’s safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) came online the following September. De Klerk addressed parliament a year and a half later, in 1993, to reveal South Africa’s disarmament. It was also the first time the rest of the world discovered the apartheid regime’s doings.

Under the auspices of a changing ANC ruling party, South Africa has progressed toward “its largest nuclear procurement program…” Additionally, global demand for uranium has increased along with South Africa’s own growing energy needs. Because of its aging energy infrastructure, its growing population, and its “ambitious socio-economic program,” South Africa has a nationwide shortage in energy (see van Wyk, ‘South Africa’s Nuclear Future’)

South Africa has established a committee to oversee and further its plans for nuclear expansion, which includes different government and regulatory institution that have been restructured in order to prepare for the expansion of nuclear power. There is worry about South Africa’s governmental secrecy regarding nuclear power plant issues, which has even resulted in public protest. The government’s “opaque tender process,” problems with safety and security, a “general lack of transparency,” and the quality of political leadership are subject to skepticism.

South Africa’s rise in “resource nationalism” is another issue; it encompasses aims to secure future supplies of uranium. Fuel supplies aside, there is concern about the high cost of the country’s nuclear future. Other alternative energy sources might be cheaper than nuclear.

Internal criticism of South Africa’s nuclear ambitions also include the idea that, like other developing countries, South Africa also tends to treat nuclear energy as a “panacea” for the challenges posed by development and energy requirements. The state’s agenda is unclear in its entirety, and some wonder if the end goals measure up to the ideals of the South African people. If South Africa’s nuclear establishment does not address all these issues and more in a head-on fashion, van Wyk argues that domestic and international confidence will continue to suffer.

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.