by Robert BeckhusenIn late July, 2015, some stunning news hit the Brazilian nuclear program. Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva, a retired navy admiral, a leading nuclear engineer, head of Brazil’s state-controlled nuclear power company Eletronuclear and a central figure in the country’s atomic weapons program in the 1980s, was charged with taking $1.35 million in bribes.
It is a blow to Brazil’s domestic nuclear power ambitions and risks derailing the Brazilian navy’s plan to build a nuclear-powered attack submarine. The allegations involve engineering firms paying bribes for favoritism surrounding the under-construction Angra 3 nuclear power plant. Scientific research on the domestic side influences whether the military program will be a success or failure.
“The industry was already in crisis, but now the corruption concerns are bound to delay Angra 3 further and cause costs to rise even more,” Luiz Pinguelli Rosa, a former chief of Brazilian power giant Eletrobras, told Reuters.
Brazil isn’t lacking the technological know-how to continue the program, but there are environmental, economic and political concerns — and the nuclear program is subject of a public debate. Corruption spreading through the program at the highest levels doesn’t help.
The scandal also raises the question, why does Brazil want nuclear reactors for its military in the first place? There’s a long history here. On June 18, 1979, Brazil’s National Security Council authorized a “parallel” nuclear project separate from civilian nuclear research. The plan: Build a nuclear bomb in secret, and reveal it to the world in a test explosion.
Political considerations drove the program’s development. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) are all nuclear powers — and talk of potential expansion has long placed nuclear-armed India at the top of the list. Brazilian leaders — at the time a group of military officers — have long coveted being high on that list. Possession of nuclear weapons is a key consideration when petitioning for membership on the UNSC or keeping it — the British government maintains its Trident missiles amongst other considerations to maintain its position there (nevertheless, there is a dispute amongst experts about today’s importance of nuclear weapons to keep the membership on the UNSC; for details see Paul D. Beaumont, “Trident & The Unilaterist Taboo: The curious case of British nuclear weapons retention“, International Law and Policy Institute, Policy Paper No. 6/2014, March 2014, p. 6f).
The other reasons never made much sense. Brazil hadn’t fought a war with a foreign power since it joined the Allies in World War II. The country had no serious state enemies — and still doesn’t. Argentina embarked on a nuclear weapons research program at the same time as Brazil, fueling a regional rivalry. But Buenos Aires and Brasilia — even then — cooperated together more than they clashed.
Known as the Parallel Program, having the military involved in nuclear research meant no international oversight on bases forbidden to inspectors; freeing up scientists to conduct experiments and acquire materials on the international market that would otherwise be restricted due to proliferation concerns.
Brazil never completed the project and forswore nuclear weapons in 1991 as the country democratized — though Brazil possesses the technological means to produce an atomic bomb within a few years if it chose to. This is unlikely, however, and its nuclear ambitions today focus on domestic power and submarine power plants.
Which brings us to the SNB Álvaro Alberto – SN10, which is supposed to be Brazil’s first nuclear-powered attack submarine. With a relatively large and early-model pressurized water reactor, she will weigh 4,000 tons when submerged and travel far from South American shores.
For armament, the submarine will contain eight forward-facing torpedo tubes packed with F21 torpedoes and Exocet missiles. But this is all on paper, as Brazil doesn’t expect to finish building her until 2023 or 2025 at the earliest. Beyond that, there’s little available information and the program is largely secret. France, which is helping build the submarine through a technology transfer agreement, has experience with nuclear-powered attack submarines of its own — the Rubis class and its under-construction Barracuda class. The Brazilian submarine falls in between the two in terms of size.
Álvaro Alberto will have no dedicated missile room and will likely re-use other computer systems in use in the Brazilian navy. The sub’s tactical command system is from Brazil’s Oberon-class submarine Riachuelo. Álvaro Alberto should be able to spend three months at sea at a time, with a top speed of around 26 knots. It’ll be slightly larger than the under-construction Scorpene diesel submarines, however, in order to fit the reactor on board.
That’s all well and good, but the real question is why Brazil wants a nuclear submarine. The Brazilian government claims the submarine is for protecting offshore oil and natural gas infrastructure (see here).
Like the defunct nuclear weapons program, this doesn’t make much sense. To be sure, there’s a political undercurrent in Brazil — and in South America more broadly — that fears a potential threat from Europe and the United States. This owes to historical experience of foreign powers meddling in regional affairs and most recently the Falklands War, which saw the United Kingdom defeat Argentina in a military conflict.
“While Brazil’s overall relations with the United States have been cordial, and the two countries enjoy a strong commercial relationship, fear of domination from the North is an enduring feature of the Brazilian political psyche,” noted a 2009 article in Proceedings, a monthly journal of the U.S. Naval Institute.
But the journal pointed out—quite rightly — that nuclear submarines are expensive and typically intended for long-distance patrolling, not offshore security more suitable for patrol boats and diesel submarines. Besides the power plant itself, nuclear submarines also require costly training and maintenance beyond that of conventionally-powered vessels. “A fleet of small, fast surface ships could be built for the price of a single nuclear submarine and would also present a visible deterrent to anyone attempting to jeopardize Brazilian control of the platforms,” the journal noted.
Arguably, politics, economic considerations and international prestige are more important factors. Nuclear submarines are powerful symbols — only a few countries have them — and possessing them signals that one’s own military should be taken seriously. Besides, Brazil could help other countries develop their own submarines in the future, which provides for thousands of jobs and diplomatic leverage. But realistically and for Brazil’s purposes, they’re far from practical weapons.
Then Brazil has a find a place to put its nuke sub. The country’s main submarine base near Rio de Janeiro is too politically problematic – it’s one of the largest cities in the Western Hemisphere. So instead, Brazil is building facilities at Itaguai further to the south.
Now it must contend with corruption influencing the country’s nuclear research.