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ARGENTINA-BRAZIL: Nuclear Safeguards System an Example for the World

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 2 2010 (IPS) - A system of mutual safeguards, created nearly two decades ago by Argentina and Brazil for in-situ verification of the peaceful use of nuclear power in both countries, serves as an international model of transparency and confidence building in this highly sensitive field.

“This model, created by two countries that once competed with each other in this area, could be very helpful in other parts of the world, like the Middle East, North and South Korea, or India and Pakistan,” Antonio Oliveira, the Argentine secretary of the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC), told IPS.

ABACC, formed in 1991, has carried out 1,200 inspections of mines, storage facilities and nuclear power stations in both countries. In 2009 alone, Brazilian experts made 58 visits to Argentine facilities, and Argentine inspectors made 60 visits to Brazil. The system began to take shape in the mid-1980s, when then president Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989) of Argentina and former Brazilian president José Sarney (1985-1990) “came to the common understanding that they should walk together and be open to each other on nuclear matters,” Oliveira said.

Before that time, nuclear development in the two countries had been carried out in a parallel manner, and in a climate of distrust and rivalry, he added.

In South America, Argentina and Brazil are the only countries that have managed to complete the nuclear cycle, from mining uranium to converting it into nuclear fuel, and generating electricity from two nuclear power plants in each country. In addition, each country has a third reactor under construction for decades.

In both countries, environmental organisations are opposed to nuclear power, which they regard as costly and dangerous, and insist on investment in alternative sources, like wind power or solar energy.

In recent years, however, partly because of climate change concerns, nuclear energy has been making a global comeback because of its supposedly low contribution to emissions of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide.

Alfonsín and Sarney laid the foundations of bilateral integration, which later gave rise to Mercosur (the Southern Common Market trade bloc), also comprising Paraguay and Uruguay. After years of negotiations, in 1991 Argentina and Brazil signed an Agreement on the Exclusively Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy.

The pact established a Common System of Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (SCCC) in the two countries, to verify that these materials are not diverted for the construction of nuclear weapons. ABACC was created as the agency in charge of oversight and monitoring.

The agreement was later extended to include cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which also sends inspectors to collaborate in the work of verification. “By this means, the international community can confirm our effective commitment to peaceful uses of nuclear energy,” Oliveira said.

ABACC, based in Brazil, has a permanent staff of 20, of whom 12 are technical experts and the rest are administrative workers. But its key personnel are the 45 inspectors from each country who are called on to monitor different activities involving sensitive nuclear material.

“The nuclear fuel cycle involves uranium, plutonium and thorium, which at a certain level of purity and enrichment can be used to make nuclear weapons,” Oliveira said. “The materials have to be monitored to make sure they are not being diverted to other ends.” Afterwards reports are written and presented to the foreign ministries of each country.

In an interview with IPS, Federico Merke, a professor of international relations at the private Universidad del Salvador in Argentina, said the agency is a pioneering oversight model that is being observed with interest and appreciation by experts in countries in conflict situations, like India and Pakistan.

“Inspections at storage facilities, laboratories and nuclear power plants generate a lot of trust,” he said. The same model could be used in other development challenges that involve more than one country, like environmental conflicts, he added.

Oliveira said there is no other safeguard agency covering two neighbouring countries, like ABACC, in the world. “It’s the only bilateral monitoring and oversight system in the world; it is unique and works well, because relations between the two countries are very good and that helps a great deal. We have no conflicts.”

At the last Mercosur summit, held in the northwestern Argentine province of San Juan in early August, Argentine President Cristina Fernández and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva highlighted the progress made in bilateral cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

In a joint statement, Fernández and Lula said the agency is “an essential pillar of bilateral cooperation on nuclear issues,” and promised to “strengthen, perfect and reinforce its work.”

Their intentions were much appreciated by the agency’s team of experts. “We were surprised and gratified by their support,” said Oliveira, who attributed their commitment to the need to “show that in the Southern Cone (of South America) there are ideas that work, and that deserve to be analysed” at the international level.

In his last public statement in May, ABACC’s assistant secretary, Odilon Marcuzzo do Canto, said “the best way to ensure peaceful use of nuclear energy is to promote understanding and cooperation between countries,” factors that are essential to the agency’s work.

Marcuzzo do Canto stressed that Argentina and Brazil “have already taken a clear decision to reactivate their respective nuclear programmes,” and in this context, “ABACC will have an even more significant role to play in coming years.”

He said that greater use is likely to be made of nuclear reactors in Latin America in future, to satisfy increasing demand for energy, and suggested that these challenges could be overcome with “independent, reliable regional systems” applied in collaboration with the IAEA, following the successful example of ABACC.

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