Source: Add247 Defence - Photo: 2024

Smiling Buddha Turns 50: Impacts in Brazil and Worldwide

By Leonam dos Santos Guimarães*

RIO DE JANEIRO | 29 May 2024 (IDN) — On 18 May 1974, India carried out its first nuclear explosion, called “Smiling Buddha”, in the Pokhran desert. That explosion was described by the Indian government as a “peaceful nuclear explosion.” India justified the explosion as a display of its technological capabilities and a national security measure in response to regional threats.

The development of India’s nuclear program was significantly influenced by China’s nuclear test. On 16 October 1964, China carried out its first nuclear test, detonating a nuclear weapon at the Lop Nur test site. That event not only had a profound impact on India’s security and foreign policy, but also on the global nuclear industry.

India saw China’s nuclear test as a direct threat to its national security, especially after the 1962 Sino-Indian war, which resulted in a humiliating defeat for India. China’s test increased India’s concerns about China’s military superiority.

The Chinese explosion catalyzed India’s efforts to develop its own nuclear capacity. Then Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and later Indira Gandhi supported the strengthening of India’s nuclear program, culminating in the 1974 explosion, which made India the sixth nuclear power in the world and the first not to be a member of the UN Security Council.

That Indian explosion, creating a “ripple effect”, had a profound impact on Pakistan, escalating regional tensions, and prompting an assertive response from the Pakistani government. In direct response to the “Smiling Buddha” test, Pakistan sped up its own nuclear program. Then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto stated Pakistan’s intention to develop a defensive nuclear capability, culminating in the famous quote: “We will eat grass, but we will get our own bomb.”

Pakistan sought international support for its nuclear program, receiving technical and material assistance from many sources, including China itself. Sino-Pakistani cooperation was a key factor in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Pakistan carried out its own nuclear tests on 28 May 1998, called “Chagai-I”, becoming the seventh nuclear power in the world. Those tests were a display of power in response to India, which had also carried out additional nuclear tests to “Smiling Buddha” in May 1998.

Strategic steps

To carry out the 1974 explosion, India used plutonium as fissile material. Obtaining that material involved several strategic steps:

  • India obtained plutonium from Canada India Reactor Utility Services (CIRUS), a 40 MW natural uranium and heavy water research reactor provided by Canada and partially funded by the United States under a nuclear cooperation agreement for peaceful purposes.
  • The CIRUS reactor was used to produce plutonium, which is a by-product of the reactor’s operation. The reactor’s spent fuel, made of natural uranium, was irradiated to produce plutonium-239, which was subsequently extracted through chemical processes for fuel reprocessing.
  • India built a reprocessing plant in Trombay, where the plutonium was separated from the spent fuel. That facility was crucial to the development of India’s nuclear capacity, enabling the production of the fissile material needed for the explosion.

The first Indian nuclear explosion in 1974 significantly alarmed the international community, especially the United States. At the time, the United States was strongly engaged in efforts to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially after the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) came into force in 1970, to which India and Pakistan were not, as they are not to this day, signatories.

Stepped-up nuclear non-proliferation policies

When Jimmy Carter took office as President of the United States in 1977, he stepped up nuclear non-proliferation policies, being even more severe than his predecessors.

The Carter Administration imposed restrictions on the supply of nuclear fuel to countries that had U.S.-designed nuclear reactors. The stated motivation was to impose additional measures to ensure that those countries did not divert nuclear materials to weapons programs. Brazil, which had an U.S.-designed reactor (Angra 1), was directly impacted by those restrictions.

Jimmy Carter also pushed to restrict the reprocessing and enrichment of nuclear fuel on a global level. Carter’s policy was to outlaw the reprocessing of civilian spent nuclear fuel, even in the United States itself. Carter also sought to prevent the spread of uranium enrichment technologies, which had a significant impact on Brazil’s nuclear program based on the 1975 Brazil-Germany agreement.

India’s “peaceful nuclear explosion” has had a profound impact on the global perception of nuclear energy and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

  • India’s test highlighted the loopholes in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which came into force in 1970. Non-signatory nations to the NPT, such as India (and Pakistan), could develop nuclear capabilities ostentatiously for supposedly peaceful purposes, and potentially convert those capabilities for military purposes. That led to a greater emphasis on safeguards regimes and control over exports of nuclear technology.
  • There was a push to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, ensuring that any transferred nuclear technology was monitored to prevent diversion to military use through the so-called “comprehensive safeguards agreements” covering all nuclear facilities in a given country, in addition to the original facility-specific safeguards.
  • In response to India’s test, several nations began to strengthen international cooperation to prevent nuclear proliferation. The creation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 1975 was a direct measure to control the export of sensitive nuclear materials and technologies.
  • The resulting non-proliferation policies limited the spread of sensitive nuclear technology, impacting the development of civilian nuclear programs in developing countries.

Despite proliferation concerns, the construction of civilian nuclear power plants around the world increased in the 1970s and early 1980s, as an alternative energy source to oil, especially after the successive global crises of the 1970s.

However, India’s test and other nuclear tests by countries such as Pakistan and North Korea that followed, the Israeli nuclear program ambiguity, including Vela Incident and South Africa advances during apartheid regime, as well as interrupted attempts by Iraq and Libya, reinforced the need for stricter safeguards and a more robust non-proliferation regime. To that end, the IAEA in 1997 proposed an Additional Protocol to the comprehensive safeguards agreements.

Brazil-Germany nuclear agreement

The Brazil-Germany nuclear agreement, signed in 1975, involved the transfer of German nuclear technology to Brazil, including the construction of several nuclear power plants, and reprocessing and enrichment facilities. The Carter Administration was strongly against that agreement, fearing that it could facilitate nuclear proliferation.

The United States put strong diplomatic pressure on the three partner countries of the three nations company URENCO, owner of uranium enrichment technology by ultracentrifugation—which are West Germany, the Netherlands and Great Britain—to revise the agreement with Brazil, excluding that technology.

In response to pressure and restrictions, Brazil decided to accept the transfer of an alternative uranium enrichment technology called “jet nozzle”, which was still in the experimental phase in Germany, as part of the agreement with Germany. The investments required to develop and improve the technology by applying it on an industrial scale were high, without achieving the expected results.

The development of that technology delayed the progress of Brazil’s nuclear program, limiting its ability to achieve self-sufficiency in uranium enrichment. In response to international pressure and the difficulties found in the jet nozzle technology, Brazil decided to develop a nuclear program parallel to the agreement with Germany, initially classified.

The parallel program focused precisely on the development of ultracentrifugation technology, which was the most efficient and promising technology for uranium enrichment, but which was vetoed by the agreement with Germany. The main goal of the parallel program was for Brazil to achieve technological self-sufficiency and reduce dependence on foreign supplies and technologies, thus ensuring greater national security and sovereignty in the nuclear field.

The parallel nuclear program was officially recognized by the public in 1988, when Brazil was under the Sarney Administration. The milestones of that public recognition were President Sarney’s visit to the Argentine plant of uranium enrichment by gaseous diffusion in Pilcaniyeu; President Alfonsin’s visit to the Brazilian plant of uranium enrichment by centrifugation in Aramar (Ipero, Sao Paulo); and the inauguration of what was then known as the Critical Unit (UCRI), the IPEN/MB-01 zero-power nuclear reactor in Sao Paulo.

The Brazilian and Argentine governments then engaged in promoting transparency and building international trust by revealing the existence of the parallel program and reaffirming both countries’ commitment to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

The creation of the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) in 1991 was a significant milestone in regional nuclear cooperation and the strengthening of nuclear non-proliferation in Latin America. The ABACC was created to implement the nuclear materials control and accounting system, ensuring that all nuclear activities in Brazil and Argentina were intended exclusively for peaceful purposes. The agency carries out inspections, monitors the use of nuclear materials, and ensures compliance with international agreements.

In 1994, Brazil and Argentina signed a comprehensive nuclear safeguards agreement called the Quadripartite Agreement with the IAEA and the ABACC, establishing a bilateral safeguards regime to monitor the nuclear activities of both countries and ensure their peaceful use. That was a pioneering agreement, the first of its kind between two developing countries.

Argentina became a NSG member in 1994 and ratified the NPT in 1995. Brazil became a NSG member in 1996 and ratified the NPT in 1998. Brazil signed the Treaty of Tlatelolco on 29 November 1967 and ratified it on 20 May 1968. Argentina signed the Treaty of Tlatelolco on 27 September 1967 and ratified it on 18 January 1994. The Treaty of Tlatelolco, officially known as the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, is a regional agreement aimed at prohibiting nuclear weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean.

India’s first “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974 and its political reactions, especially from the United States during the Carter Administration, had a profound impact on global nuclear policy. Restrictions on the supply of nuclear fuel, the outlawing of reprocessing, and opposition to any transfer of ultracentrifugation technology were measures that strongly impacted the global civilian nuclear industry.

Brazil’s decision to adopt jet nozzle technology, which proved ineffective, illustrates the complexities and difficulties of developing self-sufficient nuclear programs in the face of international pressures and technological constraints. The development of the parallel nuclear program and the subsequent officialization and cooperation with Argentina to create the ABACC show Brazil’s determination to achieve technological independence and promote nuclear non-proliferation, contributing to regional security and stability.

*The writer is a nuclear and naval engineer (PhD) and a member of the Brazilian National Academy of Engineering. CEO of Eletronuclear S.A. Coordinator, Brazilian Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo source: Add247 Defence

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