Brazil has become one of just a handful of states to enrich uranium in a controversial bid to boost nuclear power production and ensure future energy independence.
In an exclusive interview with the Huffington Post, Nuclear Industries of Brazil (INB) spokeswoman Helena Beltrão confirmed that several of the 10 specially designed centrifuges housed at an enrichment plant in Resende, Rio de Janeiro, would be up and running by the end of March.
"Industrial-scale enrichment will start in the first quarter of this year . . . The product will then be used as fuel for the Angra 1 and 2 nuclear power plants," Beltrão said, adding the company planned to produce up to 12 tons of low-enriched uranium by the end of 2009.
A few years ago this statement would have seemed deeply troubling to the international community. In 2004, INB refused to allow inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency unrestricted access to the newly developed Resende facility, causing concern over the nuclear ambitions of South America's emerging energy giant.
Brazil insisted access was only denied to protect commercially sensitive information on the centrifuges' design, uniquely developed at the Navy Technological Center in São Paulo with support from the Nuclear and Energy Research Institute.
Months later, the country signed a safeguards agreement with the IAEA, soothing global concern over its ambitious enrichment plans and paving the way for collaborative nuclear efforts. Since then, Brazil has enjoyed close cooperation with a number of states including the US, and Argentina through the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials' bilateral inspection regime.
Brazil was awarded an environmental license from the Brazilian Environment and Renewable Natural Resource Institute to enrich uranium when the Resende facility officially opened in 1996, but permission to start the enrichment process was only granted by the National Nuclear Energy Commission on January 5 this year.
Later the same month, INB announced enrichment would start in February, with Nuclear Fuel Production Director Samuel Fayad Filho telling Brazil's press, "The great advance is that in [the] future we are not going to depend on foreign services for this important technology."
A western diplomat close to the IAEA told the Huffington Post that fresh Resende inspections were successfully carried out in the first weeks of February this year, leaving no remaining barriers to the enrichment process.
There has been little international response to INB's announcement with most western analysts focussed on the dilemma posed by Iran's nuclear objectives. The US State Department told the Huffington Post last week, "This new development has been declared, it's above board. We wouldn't have any problem with it."
But some analysts and nuclear experts say the development is more controversial than it first appears and that it could have an impact on tricky nuclear negotiations between the US and emerging nuclear powers like Iran.
While few suspect Brazil is after weapons-grade nuclear materials, Jacqueline Shire, a Senior Analyst with the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, points out that the US must not appear to maintain double standards when it comes to backing or rejecting states' attempts to develop enrichment capabilities.
"One thing is that Brazil is not adhering to the (IAEA's) Additional Protocol," she said. "It's important that Brazil should set the standard for transparency."
Brazil is thought to have some of the largest uranium deposits in the world and the state plans to keep the $25 million its costs a year to enrich the ore in Europe in Brazilian hands. If time proves that Brazil's unique centrifuges are as productive in practice as they are on paper, INB could achieve nuclear energy independence by 2020, leaving the state free to enter the exclusive nuclear suppliers group.
Andrew Newman of Harvard University's Project on Managing the Atom says that while the US government probably is not "particularly thrilled" by the development, future Brazilian uranium exports could serve US and international interests.
Newman says Brazil could be "thinking about being a regional fuel supplier"--a move which could create a more or less transparent source of nuclear reactor fuel in Latin America.
Analysts also argue that the establishment of Brazil's enrichment program could discourage more states from following suite by supplying a significant portion of global demand.
For now, Beltrão says INB's focus is on producing enough enriched uranium to power its own nuclear plants and support the government's National Energy Plan. This marks a deliberate move away from the confrontational policies of the past but as Shire warns, "No one cheers when centrifuges are spinning."