After months of negotiation, Brazilian officials expressed...

Times Staff Writer

After months of negotiation, Brazilian officials expressed hope Wednesday that a deal could be reached in the next 30 days to grant international nuclear inspectors adequate -- but not unfettered -- access to a uranium enrichment plant.

If approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the compromise would end a dispute that has held up operations at the Resende nuclear fuel facility near here.

Brazil and the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency have been at odds over how much independent monitors would be allowed to see at the plant. Brazil says the facility uses cutting-edge, homegrown technology that it wants to keep from prying eyes.

Enriched uranium can be used as fuel in power plants, or, with modifications, in nuclear weapons. Brazil says the enriched uranium made at Resende is strictly for energy generation.

IAEA inspectors Wednesday concluded three days of site visits and discussions of a Brazilian proposal to make parts of Resende's centrifuges -- machines used to make enriched uranium -- visible for inspection while screening off the rest.

Officials here said the tubes and valves open to examination would provide evidence that no nuclear material was being diverted, without giving away any trade secrets.

A Brazilian source close to the talks said that "a consensus" was near. But Melissa Fleming, an IAEA spokeswoman in Vienna, said the agency was waiting for its inspectors' report and had not made a decision.

"The Brazilian government is being constructive with us and trying to find an appropriate solution," Fleming said, adding that "we have an interest in getting this finally settled."

Brazil is eager to end the impasse. With growing demand for electricity and what is believed to be the world's sixth-largest supply of uranium -- 300,000 tons have been detected -- officials want to start production of nuclear fuel to fire up two local power plants and for export.

Energy officials here say the technology used at Resende is more efficient and economical than that used in reactors abroad. Some analysts have questioned whether the trumpeted innovations were real and, if so, whether they were produced domestically, but the government has dismissed such doubts as prejudice against a developing country.

Brazil also bridles at accusations that it has something nefarious to hide, arguing that in recent years it has been lauded for its model behavior with regard to nuclear technology, including praise from Washington. The country, which is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, already allows full IAEA inspections at other sites and has an additional monitoring agreement with Argentina.

Under military dictatorship in the early 1980s, Brazil did sell yellowcake, milled uranium, to Iraq (the U.S. was providing arms to Baghdad at the same time) but says that the IAEA has accounted for all of the material. The ruling junta pursued a secret nuclear-weapons program, but that was abandoned soon after democracy was phased back in during the latter half of the decade.

Officials insist that Brazil has since scrupulously hewn to international standards to prevent nuclear material or technology from falling into the wrong hands.

"We have always told our partners that there has never been any doubt of deviation [by] Brazil of nuclear material for unlawful purposes," Antonio Jose Vallin Guerreiro of the Foreign Ministry said in an interview this year. "There has never been any deviation whatsoever."

The IAEA has pressed for full access at Resende, partly to send a signal to less cooperative nations such as Iran and North Korea.

On a visit here this month, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said, "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." But he urged the government to cooperate with the IAEA.

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