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THE BRAZILIAN NAVY'S NUCLEAR-POWERED SUBMARINE PROGRAM, por Antônio Ruy de Almeida e José Augusto de Moura

Acervo digital » Economia de Defesa

Post por Talita de Almeida in 22/08/2017


SILVA, Antônio Ruy de Almeida; MOURA, José Augusto Abreu de. THE BRAZILIAN NAVY'S NUCLEAR-POWERED SUBMARINE PROGRAM. The Nonproliferation Review, vol. 23, n. 5-6, p. 617-633.



Since the 1950´s Brazilian government aimed to master nuclear technology to improve national development. Initially, Brazil sought to advance its nuclear technology through cooperation with the United States, but decades of effort never yielded the anticipated results. The evolution of the international security situation in the 1960s and 1970s contributed to Brazil’s decision to develop the nuclear-powered submarine program. In Brasília’s view, the international system had become a condominium of superpowers that promoted their national interests in order to maintain the status quo, denying or restricting the access of developing states to the most advanced technology. These structural aspects of the international system were confirmed, in the Brazilian perspective, by specific actions such as Washington’s refusal to provide nuclear material to Brazil’s first nuclear-power plant bought from the Westinghouse Company, the negotiations that resulted in the 1968 Treaty on the Non- Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and United States opposition to the 1975 Brazilian-West German nuclear agreement.

Several assumptions are central to understanding the Brazilian Navy’s nuclear-propulsion submarine program. The most significant point is that the decision to create and maintain the program was based mainly on the navy’s desire to improve its strategic capabilities by emulating the other navies that own this type of vessel. Other important factors were the country’s aspiration to master a technology important for its development and its ambition for a more significant role on the world stage.

In pursuing the goal of a nuclear-powered submarine, Brazil considers that it has demonstrated commitment to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament through Article XXIII of the Brazilian Constitution, which allows the use of nuclear technology in Brazil only for peaceful uses, and through its participation in nonproliferation treaties and mechanisms. It therefore defends its right to develop nuclear technology as essential to its national security and development. Brazil considers additional nonproliferation restrictions that impinge upon this right as an attempt to hamper the country’s development.

The program can be divided into three phases. The first, the golden phase, began with resources from the navy, and then received strong financial support from the National Security Council between 1980 and 1989, allowing it to progress quickly. In 1982, the program built its first gas centrifuge capable of enriching uranium, and in1988, it inaugurated its first cascade of centrifuges.

This golden phase was followed by a twenty-year period of extreme difficulties, the vegetative phase, during which the National Security Council was dissolved and the program moved under the purview of the Secretariat for Strategic Affairs, an agency, created in 1990, directly subordinated to the President. In 1999,when the Secretariat was dissolved, the program was merged into the Nuclear Scientific-Technical Program of the Ministry of Science and Technology. These changes, along with Brazil’s political and economic difficulties and the government’s lack of political will to continue the program, vastly reduced the program’s financial resources. Thus, the navy began to bear an increasing percentage of the program’s budget, to the detriment of other naval programs and activities. This situation reached its worst point in 2003–07, when the program became truly vegetative. During this period, the Brazilian navy provided the minimum amount of funding needed to ensure the program’s survival, in the hope that someday the government would prioritize it again.

The third phase of the program, the institutionalization phase, began in 2007 when, after a visit to the program, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva decided to commit the funds needed to complete the uranium-enrichment project allowing the production of fuel on an industrial scale, currently in progress, and to accelerate the development of the nuclear-powered submarine. Besides the financial support for the submarine project, the Brazilian government institutionalized the program in the Brazilian National Defense Strategy. This was an important step toward transforming a naval program into a state strategic program, to Brazil’s defense and development. The injection of federal funds allowed other stages of the program to advance as well, including the construction of a land-based prototype project laboratory, to design, build, operate, and maintain the PWR-type reactor able to power a submarine as well as other peaceful applications.

The navy’s nuclear program has contributed to Brazil’s development through a variety of new technologies, materials, and services. After languishing for years the program now appears to have found the required conditions necessary for its eventual success. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go before a Brazilian nuclear-powered submarine can send the message “ underway on nuclear power”.


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