Brazil Shops for Help With a Nuclear Submarine

Brazil is trying to buy a sintering furnace for its nuclear submarine program, U.S. and industry officials say. The special projects branch of Brazilian navy, COPESP, wants to use the furnace to make uranium fuel pellets for the submarine’s reactor.

The sale ran into opposition last month in the Subgroup on Nuclear Export Controls (SNEC), a U.S. interagency group that handles sensitive applications for nuclear export licenses. The Pentagon opposed the sale, but the Commerce Department favored approval and so did the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), provided non-nuclear use conditions were attached.

Before the case could be resolved, COPESP rejected the furnace offered by the American seller, Thermal Technology, Inc. of Santa Rosa, California, for a more sophisticated, continuously-operating furnace offered by British and German sellers, a spokesman for Thermal Technology told the Risk Report.

The sale was controversial because international inspections don’t expressly cover naval reactor fuel. Also, naval reactor fuel can be made powerful enough to fuel atomic bombs. Brazil is expected to refuse inspection to avoid, in the words of a U.S. official, “an intrusion that no military would accept.”

Nuclear submarines are widely viewed as strategic weapons. They provide long-range striking power, whereas coastal defense can be done more cheaply by modern diesel submarines which are equally quiet. Current U.S. export policy is “not to participate in … foreign naval propulsion plant projects” without a government-to-government agreement, which doesn’t exist for Brazil.