The United States and the Brazilian “Parallel” Nuclear Program (1978-1991)

Brazil’s awakening to the nuclear energy came with the explosions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. About a year after these incidents, the country starts to delineate a nuclear program. Generally speaking, it can be said that these projects were developed mostly surrounded by secrecy and free of Congressional scrutiny. Indeed, the major advances in such projects occurred under strong Executives, with an ample rule over the Legislative. The most significant steps were taken under the governments of Vargas, dictator (1930-1945) and then democratically elected (1951-1954), and under the military dictatorship (1964-1985).

The oversight of the Legislative occurred through three Parliamentary Inquiry Commissions, in 1956, 1978 and 1990. Not a coincidence, these moments mark the ending of authoritarian periods, or at least of a recrudescence of a democratic bias. 1956 is the end of the “Era Vargas”; 1978 is a moment of distension towards democracy; and 1990 is the year in which the first elected president since 1962 assumes the power, ending the military rule.

Analyzing academic production, press statements and the official reports of the Inquiry Commissions, one of the most recurring explanations provided to justify the insulation of the Congress and the secrecy were the policies and political pressures exerted by the United States. Thus, it becomes of crucial importance to evaluate the impact US’ non-proliferation policies had on the development of Brazilian nuclear programs, in the light of recent sources.

This paper, specifically, intends to approach the relation between US’ non-proliferation policies and the creation and later development of a secret nuclear program (1978-1991), parallel to the one that resulted from the 1975 Deal with West Germany. That project, known as the parallel program, sought the dominance of the nuclear cycle, perceived by the policymakers of then as determinant “not only to the progress and well being of the nations, but their own independence”. The program was not primarily directed to nuclear weapons, but to nuclear enrichment capacity. A top rank military Minister said that the decision to make or not to make a bomb should not be scientific nor technical, but political. Secrecy and the dual-use character of nuclear energy managed to engender a compartmentalized program, partially supported by partially informed actors.

Recently declassified Brazilian documents show that Carter’s 1978 Non-Proliferation Act was at the basis of the justifications for the parallel program, and specialized literature suggests that “in the absence of disincentives from the international regime”, the referred project would be undertaken publicly. In the 1990 Inquiry Commission, several officials attributed to American policies not only the creation of the program, but also its secrecy. It is important to notice that such arguments had wide reception among Brazilian congressmen, and therefore constituted strong arguments in favor of the parallel program directors – and they were obviously aware of that. Yet, recently declassified archives, as well as interviews with actors that took part in the parallel reinforce such view, or at least a Brazilian perception of such “threat”, providing an instigating framework to analyze Brazil-US relations and nuclear agenda.

Rodrigo Morais Chaves

CPDOC – Getúlio Vargas Foundation

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2 Responses to The United States and the Brazilian “Parallel” Nuclear Program (1978-1991)

  1. Andrea de Sa says:

    I’m writing my thesis on this, and have worked in partnership with Matias Spektor of the Getulio Vargas Foundation. Very interesting work, though I would advise you to read Fernanda Correa’s book on this. She does a really good job of explaining how Carter’s policies influenced the military regime’s decisions when it came to nuclear development.

    But– I would also shy away from calling it a ‘parallel program,’ and be very careful about language. The program was meant to develop centrifuges for naval use, with only very little (lab-scale, but almost elementary-grade) development toward nuclear weapons. If you’d like, we can exchange notes. I’ve already interviewed Admiral Othon-Pinheiro, Ambassador Azambuja, Leonam dos Santos, and various navy officials, though I should warn you: My research touches on the history of the program, but focuses on recent developments with the IAEA and agreements with France.

    Andrea de Sa
    Princeton University

    • rodrigomch says:


      Matias had told me about your work already. He is orienting me in my dissertation, and said I should get in touch with you. I just did not know you were on the program as well. That’s really good!

      Thank you for the tips, I’ll look into Fernanda Correa’s book. I’d be happy to exchange notes and ideas with you.
      About the weapon development, I meant Brazil sought uranium enrichment capacity, and that the dual use of such technology would bring that card to the table. There is some documentation that points that way, as well as it points out that this never grew larger than an intention, as you mentioned.I did not mean the project was oriented to build a nucler weapon, but you are right, the text gives that impression.
      About the interviews, I believe we can exchange some data and ideas. I’m looking forwar to this.

      Best wishes,


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