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Military Program in Brazil, The
Working Paper

Published By


August 1997

Since Brazil and West Germany surprised the world by announcing that they had reached the nuclear "deal of the century" in 1975, many national and international observers have feared that Brazil sought to develop atomic weapons. Brazilian rejection of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Tlatelolco treaties, insistence on its legal right to develop so-called peaceful nuclear explosives (PNEs), aspirations to great power status, authoritarian military government, and tacit nuclear rivalry with Argentina aroused concern that this ambitious program of reactor construction and technology transfer would mask an effort to reach the bomb.

Although difficult financial circumstances derailed this program in the late 1970s, by the early 1980s press reports began to emerge indicating that a secretive "parallel" nuclear program under military direction was underway. Transition to democratic rule in 1985 failed to clarify the nature and objectives of this second effort, and provocative statements by senior military officers intensified concerns. This second effort persevered in the face of the severe economic conditions that made the 1980s a "lost decade" for Latin American countries, increasing international stress on nonproliferation, and protests from domestic anti-nuclear and environmental groups, as well as a 1990 investigation by the national congress.

By 1991, however, Brazil had formally renounced PNEs, agreed to establish bilateral safeguards with Argentina and to accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection of formerly secret nuclear facilities, and committed to ratifying the Treaty of Tlatelolco. This marked the apparent reversal of a long trajectory toward the proliferation threshold, and thus assuaged apprehension within and outside the country. Yet military involvement in nuclear technological development continued essentially unaltered, and Brazil now enjoys the distinction of being one of the few states with the indigenous capacity to produce fissile material necessary to construct atomic weapons.

This paper seeks to answer two questions: Given limited resources and domestic and foreign opposition, how did the Brazilian military succeed in developing this capacity? Given their determined effort and enduring role in nuclear development, why did the armed forces stop short of the bomb?

This study answers these two questions through investigation of domestic political processes, which involve the formation and maintenance of programmatic coalitions that marshal human, material, and political resources for technological development. Such coalitions encounter constraints which include competition for scarce human and financial capital, international technological denial, and domestic and international opposition. Such programs must be either effectively insulated from domestic challenges, or politically defended and normatively legitimated in spite of them.

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