Report: Nuclear Responsibilities and the Global Nuclear Order – Perspectives from São Paulo

The ideas presented in this report emerged out of a one-day roundtable on ‘nuclear responsibilities’ that was held on 28 November 2019 and hosted by the School of International Relations at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo, Brazil. Held under the Chatham House Rule, participants included Brazilian representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, think tanks and academics, whose discussions were facilitated by Sebastian Brixey-Williams (Co-Director, BASIC) and Alice Spilman (PhD Researcher, BASIC and ICCS).

The purpose was to introduce the Brazilian nuclear policy community to the ‘nuclear responsibilities’ framing that underpins BASIC and ICCS’s Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities (PNR). The Programme has been introduced at similar roundtables that were held in the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Japan, and the Netherlands. The aim of these roundtables has been to gather opinion on the plausibility and utility of the ‘nuclear responsibilities’ framing, and to assemble comprehensive suggestions of nuclear responsibilities for both nuclear weapon possessors and non-possessor states. 

The PNR engages with a range of nuclear possessor and non-nuclear possessor states, and Brazil was selected for a number of reasons. Brazil is a major economy in the Southern Hemisphere, and a major regional power alongside Argentina, bringing with it certain responsibilities for stability and security in Latin America. It has a strong history of involvement within the global nuclear order (GNO), broadly understood as an ‘arrangement of states and institutions in the international system based on beliefs about the relationship between nuclear technology and international political power.’ Brazil is a longtime advocate of a progressive disarmament agenda, most notably in recent years in its leadership alongside several other states in the adoption and promotion of the Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a process with strong normative underpinnings.

Much has been written on Brazil’s nuclear ambitions. Brazil has an advanced civil nuclear programme, and has always defended its sovereign right to develop an indigenous peaceful uranium enrichment programme, which has resulted in two nuclear reactors (Angra 1 and Angra 2) that together generate around three percent of Brazil’s electricity. Whilst several factors, including financial constraints and corruption issues, have stalled the development of a further reactor (Angra 3), it has ambitions to expand its civil nuclear programme. 

Misperceptions abound about whether Brazil ever had a nuclear weapons programme, though recent scholarship has been able to present a more nuanced history. A common Western narrative is that Brazil had an active nuclear weapons programme that was later abandoned, though non-proliferation commentators are often quick to add that there is always a threat that it could be resumed at a later time. Oral histories and archival research has suggested that this narrative does not stand up to scrutiny. Resolving these misperceptions is important, since what one believes about Brazilian nuclear history has a bearing on the degree to which Brazil’s actions and expressed intentions within the GNO today are deemed to be made in good faith.

Brazil does have a military nuclear programme, though not to develop nuclear weapons: rather, to build and operate a nuclear-propelled attack submarine. This has been an ambition of the Brazilian Government and Navy for decades, and the Bolsonaro Government elected in 2019 has indicated strong support to complete the programme. If successful, Brazil would join only six other countries (all nuclear weapon possessors) with this capability, becoming the first non-nuclear possessor state to have such an indigenously-produced vessel. How the Brazilian government elects to apply nuclear safeguards to this programme will therefore set an important global precedent, as Brazil will not be the last country to develop such a capability.

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