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Powell Sees No Nuclear Red Flags in Brazil

Times Staff Writers

U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declared Tuesday that the United States was confident that Brazil had no intentions of developing nuclear weapons despite the country’s refusal to allow United Nations inspectors to examine key parts of a uranium enrichment facility.

Powell said that Brazil’s decision to block inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency from viewing centrifuges at Resende, near Rio de Janeiro, was not an issue that concerned the U.S.

“We know for sure Brazil is not thinking about nuclear weapons,” he said. “That is not a concern of ours.”

In a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Sao Paulo and later, at a news conference in Brasilia, Powell described the dispute as one between Brazil and the IAEA. The centrifuges, which are produced in Brazil, are used to enrich uranium for the country’s nuclear power plants, but could also be employed to produce weapons-grade material.

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Powell made his comments during a two-day visit to Brazil aimed mainly at strengthening ties with an important nation in the region.

Brazil is heading a U.N. peacekeeping mission to Haiti and has played a key role in easing political tensions in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez recently survived a divisive recall vote. Brazil also now holds a seat on the U.N. Security Council and has emerged as a leader among a group of nations pressing the U.S., Europe and Japan to end massive agricultural subsidies that hurt farmers in developing countries.

Concerns about Brazil’s nuclear program first arose among nonproliferation specialists this year after the government refused to give inspectors permission to review the entire Resende facility.

Brazil hopes that nuclear energy will help meet its rising electricity demands. Only 4% of Brazil’s electricity needs are met by nuclear power.

After it renounced plans for a nuclear weapons program in 1990, Brazil was frequently cited as a success story by those working to stop the spread of atomic weapons.

At a news conference Tuesday, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said his country’s reluctance to allow the inspectors to see the Resende centrifuges was based solely on its desire to protect technology that Brazil claims is superior to that used by other countries.

“Brazil has nothing to hide ... except for the technology we have acquired and hope to protect,” he told reporters.

Independent experts have argued that the issue needs to be clarified soon.

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“It could be just a matter of pride that they don’t want anyone poking around their technology, or they could have something to hide,” said Victoria Samson, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. “But it’s something to be concerned about. It seems like a step back.”

The dispute comes amid concerns by some arms control specialists that countries suspected of secretly developing nuclear weapons, such as Iran and North Korea, might try to use Brazil’s dispute with the IAEA -- and the United States’ relaxed approach to it -- to wrest new concessions on international inspections of their own facilities.

Powell rejected that argument.

“I don’t think that Brazil can be talked about in the same vein or put in quite the same category as Iran or North Korea,” he said.

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Brazilian officials bristle at being lectured by the U.S., which they point out is a major nuclear power that refused to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. They also say that the U.S. has not lived up to expectations in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to prevent technology transfer and reduce its stockpile of weapons.

They say that other government priorities, the country’s mostly pacifist history and public opinion rule out any possibility that Brasilia might direct its research toward developing a nuclear bomb or passing on its technology to countries that would do so.

Odair D. Goncalves, president of the National Commission of Nuclear Energy, said in a recent interview that there was “no chance at all” that uranium could be diverted.

Officials point out that Brazil’s nuclear installations are already subject to unannounced inspections under domestic law, an accord with Argentina and an agreement with the IAEA.

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