Technology, politics, and development: domestic criticism of the 1975 Brazilian-West German nuclear agreement – an interview with James Cameron by Leonardo Bandarra

The 1975 Nuclear Agreement between Brazil and West Germany is usually regarded as a significant achievement of the Brazilian military regime. It was praised as the Agreement of the Century and enshrined the ambition of bringing Brazil to the nuclear era. It failed, however, to deliver on its promises, as the transferred technology proved not to be commercially viable. A relevant and understudied reason for this fiasco was the little public debate on technical aspects of the agreement, particularly concerning the inclusion of scientists outside the National Nuclear Energy Commission in the negotiation process. This lack of discussion was, however, not absolute, as showed by professor James Cameron, of Fundação Getúlio Vargas in the article Technology, politics, and development: domestic criticism of the 1975 Brazilian-West German nuclear agreement published at the special issue of RBPI Rethinking Power in Global and Transnational History (Volume 61 – N. 2 – 2018), which is the subject of this interview.

In your article, you give a rare take on the incipient public around the 1975 Nuclear Agreement between Brazil and West Germany. Studying public debate in autocracies is a troublesome issue since the regime usually restrains it. The most notorious examples of opposition to the treaty you mention are a small group within the accepted opposition party – the Brazilian Democratic Movement, MDB –, and established scientific societies, such as the Brazilian Society of Physics – SBF – and the Brazilian Society for Progress in Science. The second was illustrated by professor José Goldemberg, whereas the first led by congressman Lysâneas Maciel. In your opinion how important were those groups in shaping the Brazilian nuclear policy in the 1970s?

The immediate impact of the scientific and political criticism of the 1975 Brazil-West Germany nuclear agreement was very limited, because the dictatorship had already closed the deal, the majority of the Brazilian political class supported it, and even the opposition conceded that it was a step forward from Brazil’s 1971 nuclear agreement with the United States.

While Maciel and Goldemberg’s critiques had limited impact at the time, they served the basis for future investigations into the conduct of the Brazil-West Germany nuclear agreement, once it became clear that the deal was not living up to its initial hopes. The congressional commission of enquiry established in 1978 called Goldemberg to testify, while the findings of the commission proved that the critics of 1975 were right to be skeptical.

Given that they were very limited, as you mentioned, why should we study them?

Firstly, we should study the critics in order to show that there was serious discussion of the 1975 agreement and its defects were predictable. The dictatorship could have consulted more widely with the scientific community as well as Brazilian civil society, but it chose not to. If it had reached out to these groups, perhaps many of the later problems could have been avoided.

It is also interesting to study these groups because they have a very different view of the role of nuclear power than that normally associated with critics in other countries, particularly in the Global North. Generally, nuclear criticism in Europe and the United States is associated with anti-nuclear activism, but Maciel was not like that at all. In fact, he criticized the dictatorship for not being assertive enough in pursuing Brazil’s nuclear autonomy – in part, I suspect, to try to show that while they talked like nationalists asserting independence from the United States by signing the deal against Washington’s wishes, they were in fact far less rebellious than they made out.

We also have a moral responsibility to study people who have the courage to challenge the status quo in dictatorial regimes. Maciel, Goldemberg, and others took significant personal and professional risks to speak out against a program that they believed was ill-conceived and unlikely to live up to the regime’s promises. Maciel suffered for his opposition to the dictatorship by being deprived of his political rights and went to live in exile. We do a disservice to the bravery of their actions if we do not remember them.

Were there any other noteworthy groups against the treaty? Which ones?

As Etel Solingen outlines in her comparative study of the Brazilian and Argentinian nuclear programs, Industrial Policy, Technology, and International Bargaining, Brazilian private enterprise was not happy with the way in which the implementation of the deal privileged Brazilian state and foreign companies. Brazilian private companies already had the capacity to meet many of the requirements for implementing the agreement. However, there were no incentives in place to stimulate private-sector participation, meaning that German components were often used even when there was a nationally produced equivalent. While initially limited, these qualms increased during the 1970s and played a role in the growth of a broader private-sector pushback against what it perceived as the overbearing role of the state in the Brazilian economy.

Concerning the effect on the domestic debate on nuclear cooperation, how did the 1975 agreement differ from its predecessor, the 1971 Agreement with the United States for the construction of Angra 1 power plant?

The Angra 1 nuclear reactor supplied by the U.S. company Westinghouse was constructed on the basis of the “turnkey” principle, i.e. the reactor was entirely American-designed with no transfer of technology – all the operator would have to do would be to turn the key. The fuel would be shipped from the United States, so there was no need for Brazil to manufacture its own supply. While this was good for the rapid introduction of nuclear power into Brazil, it did very little to facilitate the country’s emergence as an autonomous actor in the nuclear field.

The 1975 West Germany deal was far more ambitious in this regard because it would involve much greater Brazilian participation in the construction of the power plants, particularly in the later stages, facilitating the transfer of technology from West Germany to Brazil. At the same time, the deal envisioned the development of Brazilian capacity to enrich and reprocess its own nuclear fuel. So the Brazil-West Germany agreement was a far more wide-ranging project with the final aim of securing Brazil’s full nuclear autonomy.

Recent administrations unsuccessfully planned to build new nuclear power plants. Among other problems, those plans were targeted by antinuclear protests. An example of that was the demonstrations against the construction of a power plant in Itacuruba, mainland Ceará (Northeast region), in 2011. How would you evaluate the development of the public debate over nuclear energy in Brazil since the 1970s?

The environmental movement is far stronger today than it was in the 1970s. During the 1970s, environmentalism was just getting started and such concerns played a relatively small role in the Brazilian debate, which wasn’t antinuclear but focused on the best way to secure autonomous development for Brazil through the use of nuclear power. Now environmental groups are far stronger and more developed than they were in the 1970s – and of course far freer to express their opinions than they were during the dictatorship.

At the same time, however, there are many common threads that link the 1970s and today. One is the persistent belief within sectors of the Brazilian elite that nuclear energy is an important part of the country’s developmental strategy, in particular as a means to secure autonomy and show that the country can achieve mastery of complex technology. We see that today with the discussion of the nuclear-propelled submarine program, which involves miniaturized reactors as well as pushing back against other states that are concerned about how the program will be monitored.

Read the article

Cameron, James. (2018). Technology, politics, and development: domestic criticism of the 1975 Brazilian-West German nuclear agreement. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 61(2), e001. Epub October 25, 2018.

About the authors

James Cameron – King’s College London, Department of War Studies, London – England. (

Leonardo Bandarra – Research Fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) and Doctoral student at University of Goettingen, Germany; member of the editorial team of the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional – RBPI.

How to cite this interview

aclessa, "Technology, politics, and development: domestic criticism of the 1975 Brazilian-West German nuclear agreement – an interview with James Cameron by Leonardo Bandarra," in Instituto Brasileiro de Relações Internacionais, 28/10/2018,

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