Security | Non-proliferation

It takes two

20 April 2012

Today, most nonproliferation diplomacy involves many players: nuclear weapons states, nuclear suppliers’ groups, international organisations and their compliance bodies. But it has not always been this way. In 1991, Brazil and Argentina mutually agreed not to develop nuclear weapons. By Carlos Feu Alvim and Leonam dos Santos Guimarães

In the international community today, there is no real concern about the non-peaceful use of nuclear energy in South America. Twenty years ago, the situation in Brazil and Argentina was very different. Military regimes were still a recent memory, and both countries had secretive nuclear power initiatives. Brazil and Argentina had not enforced the 1967 Latin American prohibition of nuclear weapons treaty of Tlatelolco, they allowed nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes, they had not signed the 1968 non-proliferation treaty, and had no comprehensive IAEA safeguards agreements.

In 1991, when Brazil’s economy was not as large as it is now, its rivalry with southern neighbour Argentina would have dictated that should Brazil have ventured toward the construction of a nuclear weapon, Argentina or some other country in the region would have been induced to participate in a nuclear arms race.

In the South American political scene there were non-democratic regimes, most of them of military in nature, which could have favoured proliferation initiatives. The military regime in Brazil lasted from 1964 (when president João Goulart was overthrown) until 1985 when power was handed over to civilians. In Argentina the military took control of the government in the 1966-1973 and 1976-1983 periods. At the end of the 1980s, all countries in the ‘south cone’ (the part of South America that includes Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile) were under military regimes.

The existence of non-democratic regimes, mainly the military ones, created the opportunity for pursuing secret activities in enrichment (in Brazil) and enrichment and reprocessing (in Argentina).

Historical experience shows that closed political regimes make use of military adventures in order to gain internal prestige. One episode of this type, namely the Malvinas/Falklands war, won the approval of most of the Argentine society but precipitated, with its failure, the end of the military regime. Internal approval could probably be achieved in a dictatorial regime by the explosion of a nuclear device, which would have changed the history of the continent.

Another useful indicator regarding proliferation would be public perception on the need of nuclear weapons for national security. In the Brazilian and Argentine cases, the opinion of the general and scientific communities was clearly that a nuclear arms race between the two countries would be an inconvenience. The existing good relationships among the scientists, including those members of armed forces of both countries, was and still is an important obstacle for the this possible nuclear race.

The first civilian administrations in Brazil and Argentina (presidents José Sarney (April 1985-March 1990) and Raúl Alfonsín (December 1983-July 1989), respectively) started the detente process by stating their intentions for mutual inspections of nuclear installations, making presidential declarations about the use of nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes, and exchanging inventory declarations.

In this phase, besides the bilateral visits, there was a motion for information opening and an internal and bilateral commitment to the exclusively peaceful use of nuclear energy. In Brazil, nuclear activities were extensively analyzed by the Congress through the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry, having as chairman the senator and future president Itamar Franco, and by the civilian society through the Vargas Commission, under the coordination of the vice president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences José Israel Vargas, with the participation of scientists, private entrepreneurs and government representatives. The scope of the investigations of the latter included both the activities developed secretly in the so called ‘parallel (nuclear) programme’ and those related to the Brazil-Germany nuclear agreement. This last programme intended to build eight nuclear power reactors (now Angra 1, 2 and 3) and transfer of technology under extremely rigid safeguards and intense public discussion. As a result of this scrutiny, the decision was taken to rearrange or deactivate parts of this programme, but the activities of the parallel programme were kept.

In the subsequent administrations of presidents Fernando Collor (March 1990-December 1992) and Carlos Menem (July 1989-December 1999), several international commitments regarding the exclusively peaceful uses of nuclear energy were assumed and some R&D projects that were not directly connected to the reviewed nuclear programs were suspended or deactivated.

Examples included the natural uranium graphite-gas nuclear reactor project in Brazil and the reprocessing plant in Argentina. Brazil had plans to build a 0.5 MW natural uranium fuelled gas-graphite reactor, dubbed the Atlantic project, at the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) of the Army Technology Center, near Rio de Janeiro since the mid-1980s. The project, which reportedly suffered from financial difficulties, was reactivated in 1997 by president Cardoso, but was later suspended. Construction of the Ezeiza demonstration plutonium reprocessing facility in Argentina began in 1978, and was planned to be in operation by the early 1980s. However the project experienced both technical and financial difficulties and construction has been suspended since 1990.

Not directly related to the nuclear activities, but also a matter of concern in the international community, was the deactivation of the Condor Project (ballistic missile development) in Argentina.

This work culminated in the signature of the Brazilian–Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (abbreviated in Spanish and Portuguese as ABACC), in 1991. This agreement set up an independent agency (ABACC) that monitors nuclear materials according to a mutually-agreed accounting method (see Table 1 for a list of controlled sites). ABACC’s budget in 2010 was $4 million.

General procedures of the ABACC accounting method are in three parts: safeguards requirements for nuclear facility licensing, procedures for applying the rules for each state’s nuclear regulator, and procedures for applying the rules regionally. In addition, ABACC uses two instruments. First, a design information questionnaire given to a new nuclear facility is used to develop an approach for inspection. Second, an application manual lists the procedures used for control and verification of nuclear materials. Results of inspections are reported periodically to each country and the IAEA, who was added to the agreement as a fourth party in late 1991.

Now, in addition to the bilateral agreement, Brazil and Argentina are signatories of the Tlatelolco and non-proliferation (NPT) treaties and a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA. These are important barriers to avoid deviations from the strict adherence to the international promises assumed by the countries, preventing individual or institutional actions to develop any proliferating activity in a clandestine way.

However, the two countries do not have, in the present circumstances, the intention to adhere to the Additional Protocol relative to the Quadripartite Agreement. The mutual inspections regime has been already recognised by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as an additional assurance to be considered in evaluations. The intrinsic efficacy of having inspectors with a natural motivation for avoiding proliferation in its neighbour is an additional factor that must be considered.

For the region, the enforcement and application of these agreements, starting with ABACC in 1991, constitute an important change in the political climate. It also brought a ten-fold increase in economic cooperation between Brazil and Argentina.

Author Info:

Carlos Feu Alvim is editor of periodical Economia & Energia ( He was the first Brazilian Secretary of ABACC from 1992 to 1993.

Leonam dos Santos Guimarães is head of the presidential office, and member of the permanent nuclear energy advisory group of the IAEA director-general. Eletrobrás Termonuclear S.A. Rua da Candelária 65 – 10th floor, Rio de Janeiro – 20091-020, Brazil

This article was published in the March 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International magazine.


Agreement Between The Republic Of Argentina And The Federative Republic Of Brazil For The Exclusively Peaceful Use Of Nuclear Energy. (18 de julho de 1991). Guadalajara, Mexico.
Feu Alvim, C., & Guimaraes, L. d. (julho/Setembro de 2011). The ten largest economies and nuclear energy: reflections regarding the future of Brazil. Economia e Energia - e&e (No. 82), pp. 3-13 (
'Military dictatorship'. Website accessed July 2011
James E. Doyle, Nuclear Safeguards, Security and Non Proliferation, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2008. p307-330


Table 1: List of controlled sites

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