Monday, May 08, 2006

Brazil Opens Uranium Enrichment Center

Opening of a new center in Resende means Brazil won't have to send its Uranium to Urenco in Europe for enrichment.

UPDATE: Austrlia looks 20 years ahead and sees something similar.

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GreenGOP said...

Brazil gets it and the US should follow their lead. Brazil is upgrading its nuclear energy capabilities, while simultaneously getting itself 100% off foreign sources of oil this year. That Brazil kicks our ass in soccer I can deal with, but in energy security and independence too? That shouldn't happen.

David Bradish said...

Fair enough. However, Brazil consumes one tenth the amount of energy the U.S. does. It is much easier to replace one thing than ten things.

Robert Merkel said...

While I generally support the widespread use of nuclear power, and I realise that the NEI's concern is promoting their nuclear power business rather than military matters, isn't uranium enrichment a particularly proliferation-sensitive technology?

Isn't what Brazil has just done essentially the same thing that the United States is threatening threatening dire consequences for Iran over?

I don't mean to imply that I think the Brazilians intend to construct a nuclear weapon (though back in the days of the military dictatorship they apparently had plans to do so), or that I think Iran is just interested in the commercial reactor uranium enrichment business. However, I don't think you can run a global anti-proliferation system based on who the United States happens to be suspicious of, or friendly towards, at any particular time, because countries that are not particularly well-disposed towards the US will simply ignore it as a tool of "Western imperialists" or whatever the favoured insult at the time is.

I just wonder whether some reflection about the consequences is called for before applauding the spread of enrichment technology.

Paul Primavera said...

Robert Merkel,

It takes a lot more enrichment to produce weapons-grade uranium (which must be 90+% pure U-235) than reactor-fuel-grade uranium (which is usually around 5% for LWRs). As far as I understand it, neither Brazil nor Iran have weapons-grade enrichment capability which is an order of magnitude harder to develop than enrichment capability for reactor fuel.

That being said, there is a world of difference between the mad theocracy of Iran and Brazil which is a relatively free nation. However, I do not think the US or anyone else should dictate to either any conditions on the use of enrichment technology. Rather, if either one develops and uses a nuclear weapon, then that country should be put back into the stone age with all due haste. The principle is a simple one - "non-initiation of force." Dr. Jerry Pournelle has repeatedly proposed that we let our cultural weapons of mass destruction work in the case of Iran. When its youth realize the difference between the restrictions of a Shia Islam lifestyle and Western "sex, drugs and rock'n roll", they'll do the same as the Poles, East Germans and others did in the early 1990s.

As far as emulating Brazil's example in using ethanol to replace gasoline, why not go with Graham Cowan's idea of boron replacement of petroleum for transportation? Use nuclear energy to provide combustible boron and recyle to waste back again? Here are several web links:

Boron: A Better Energy Carrier than Hydrogen?

Eric McErlain said...


Writing about the Brazilian enrichment facility doesn't imply endorsement. In this case, I was simply passing along a news item for comment and discussion.

Take a look at our disclaimer sometime. I know it might be hair splitting, but I think it's important to remember.

Robert Merkel said...

Firstly, thanks to Eric for the clarification, and thanks to the NEI for the excellent venue for discussion.

Paul, it's difficult to get a straight answer on this in the public domain, but as I understand it the same centrifuges (assuming they are well designed) can be used to produce LEU or HEU; to produce HEU you either need to reconfigure the centrifuges into a bigger cascade, or run the uranium hexaflouride gas through the cascade several times. On Arms Control Wonk, a blog whose authors appear to be quite well informed about these issues, I asked this very question. One poster gave the answer above, and nobody disputed it. Furthermore, Iran's centrifuge designs are very closely based on the Pakistani designs shared with the world by A.Q. Khan, which proved perfectly adequate for Pakistan to make HEU for nuclear weapons.

For what it's worth, Paul, I think yours is a defensible position. After all, as was pointed out in The Guardian yesterday, deterrence works. But it doesn't seem to be one that the major powers, and particularly the present leadership of the United States, are prepared to accept with regards to Iran, and in the future possibly other states gaining capabilites that make constructing a weapon easier, at the moment.

But if nuclear power is as widely adopted around the world as many of the people on this blog hope, demands for indigenous enrichment facilities will continue to rise. A constant theme on this blog is the undesirability of the United States depending on unstable foriegn sources of fossil fuel. Guess what? Other countries might feel the same way about depending on foriegn sources of reactor fuel.

Anyway, as an issue that might seriously affect the global nuclear power industry's future, it's worth thinking about very carefully.