Wed, Oct 08, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Brazil's move to enrich uranium is raising eyebrows


A senior Brazilian official said on Monday that the South American nation plans to begin enriching uranium next year and possibly export the product a decade later.

Such a move would technically give Brazil the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, but Science and Technology Minister Roberto Amaral said the proposed uranium program was aimed at guaranteeing the country's energy supply, which is heavily reliant on hydro-electric power.

He also said the move had already been approved by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose government is considering dusting off old plans to build a third nuclear power plant in Latin America's largest country.

"This is something that could not be decided against the president's will," Amaral told reporters.

Brazil first announced it had the ability to enrich uranium in the late 1980s, but has never actually produced it at home. The uranium currently used in its nuclear plants is enriched in Europe.

If Brazil does begin enriching uranium, the move is likely to raise eyebrows in Argentina and the US. Both countries have voiced concern in the past about the extent of Brazil's nuclear energy and research program.

In January, just as the US was facing a possible nuclear crisis with North Korea and was preparing for war with Iraq over its weapons programs, Amaral made headlines in neighboring Argentina by arguing that Brazil should not rule out acquiring the ability to produce an atomic bomb.

At the time, a spokesman for Lula was quick to distance the president from Amaral's remarks, saying the government favored research in nuclear energy "solely and exclusively for peaceful purposes."

Amaral struck a more cautious note on Monday, saying the program's ultimate goal was to reach self-sufficiency in uranium by 2014 and export any excess output, especially to the US and France.

"We're paying close attention to the revival of the US nuclear program," he said, referring to growing interest in building new nuclear power stations in the US.

Under the program, Brazil will invest US$87 million so that by 2010 it can produce 60 percent of all the uranium used at the country's two nuclear power plants, Angra 1 and 2, located on the coast south of Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil has 600,000 tonnes of uranium reserves, "enough to keep Angra 1 and 2 going for a thousand years," Amaral said.

Until the mid-1980s, Brazil and Argentina had programs aimed at developing the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Those programs were scrapped after military dictatorships in both countries gave way to democratic rule.

The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 forbids the development of nuclear weapons or their presence in the country. Brazil has also been a signatory nation to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty since 1995.

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