The forbidden cooperation: South Africa – Brazil nuclear relations at the turn of the 1970s – an interview with Carlo Patti, by Michelly Geraldo

In his article, The forbidden cooperation: South Africa–Brazil nuclear relations at the turn of the 1970s, published in RBPI (Vol. 61, n. 2 – 2018), Carlo Patti discusses the Brazilian refusal to accept sensitive nuclear assistance from South Africa in the late 1970s. Relying on recently declassified primary sources and oral history interviews, this is an original study that opens the path to further research on unexplored cases of cooperation in the nuclear field, not only in Brazilian nuclear history but also in the understanding of world’s nuclear history.

Would you have any explanation of why this part of our history and of nuclear history had never been given enough attention? We are still discovering the facts of Brazilian atomic relations. Can oral history interviews and Brazilian, South African, German and American primary sources – which were recently released – uncover the real reasons why this issue remained far away from the spotlight?

The limited attention given to the Brazilian-South African relations in the nuclear field is connected to the lack of primary source available until a few years ago. The declassification of official records in Brazil and elsewhere allows us to answer several questions on Brazil’s nuclear history. During the 1970s rumors existed about a possible “triangle” of atomic cooperation between West Germany, South Africa and Brazil, but there was no evidence about it. The latter two countries received, in fact, similar technologies from Bonn. Interviews with protagonists of the Brazilian nuclear program and newly available documents are crucial for shedding light on the relations between South Africa and Brazil at the end of the 1970s. The high level of secrecy around the South African offer of collaboration with Brazil explains why we needed almost forty years for knowing this episode. It is evident through the analysis of the archives in Bonn and Berlin that shows that both Washington and Bonn were unaware of the South African offer. The episode is not cited in the South African archives, but it has been confirmed by oral history interviews and further Brazilian documents. The primary and oral sources confirmed that the Brazilian government, and probably also the South African, wanted to keep the secrecy on the issue. This interesting episode in nuclear history opens the path to further research on unexplored cases of cooperation in the nuclear field.

Don’t you consider the Brazilian nuclear posture a little ambiguous? Based on your paper and in our knowledge about the country, Brazil wanted the atomic technology, refused to sign NPT, especially to follow an independent nuclear path and made a considerable treaty with German. However, when South Africa reached out Brazilian Embassy to start conversations about a nuclear exchange, Brazil refused. Is that posture related only on Apartheid problem – considering that Brazil was under a military dictatorship – or there were others external factors?

Brazil’s nuclear posture at that moment can be considered entirely coherent with its political and technological choices. The Brazilian government opposed the NPT, had vague ambitions to build a nuclear device and needed to improve the uranium enrichment method that West Germany was transferring. However, the cooperation with South Africa, a country that resolved the technical troubles that Brazil was facing, would result in high political and diplomatic costs. Brazil did not want to be associated with a country that was considered a pariah by the international community for its supposed effort in building a nuclear bomb, and above all for maintaining the apartheid regime. The United States and other Western countries that were strengthening the nonproliferation regime, and Third World countries, above all the oil producers, could retaliate against Brazil with grave economic and political consequences, during a new energy crisis. Moreover, Brazil was establishing a new relationship with the former Portuguese in Africa. It would be difficult cooperating with South Africa, while Pretoria was threatening the stability of the governments of Mozambique and Angola that Brazil recognized. From the technical point of view, in 1979 discarded the South African offer to improve the jet-nozzle, but at that moment the government had already taken the secret decision to invest resources in developing autonomously without international constraints another method to enrich uranium through the ultracentrifuge isotope separation. Differently from the jet-nozzle, technology to be prepared with the West German participation, the centrifuges would be developed and managed in Brazilian laboratories not covered by international safeguards. Such enrichment method was considered more effective and was actually the technology that the Brazilian nuclear sector desired to acquire, but that West Germany was not available to cede for reasons connected to a new international nonproliferation policy. Brazil’s decision can consequently be considered in line with its diplomatic posture, but also with the goals of the country in the nuclear field.

Until now, what is the main discovery in these newly released documents?

Besides the secret offer of cooperation in a sensitive area that South Africa made through emissaries in West Germany, we now know that Brazil’s government was aware that the jet-nozzle technology that Bonn had also provided to Pretoria was useful for produce fissile material. It differs from the usual interpretation that such technology was unviable for that goal. The documentation present in Brazil’s archives shows that some circles within the military regime were discussing over the production of weapons-grade nuclear material at the beginning of the 1980s, and the uranium enriched through the jet-nozzle could be an option for achieving such a goal. The main implication, however, can be considered the self-restraint of the Brazilian government in discarding the South African offer for technical, political and diplomatic reasons. Being associated to a pariah state, such as South Africa, could be dangerous for Brazil, which was attempting at demonstrating to the world not to constitute a threat to the nuclear nonproliferation regime despite its opposition to the NPT.

What are the possible implications in our own conception of Brazilian nuclear policy based on these new documents?

This case shows that possible nuclear cooperation in a sensitive area, such as uranium enrichment, is constrained for political reasons also for a country that procures mastering the nuclear fuel cycle without international limitations. As noticed before, high political and diplomatic costs explain the decision of a recipient of atomic technology not to cooperate with a supplier of critical sensitive technologies for producing both nuclear fuel and weapons-grade material. It can be considered a new aspect to be explored by the studies on atomic cooperation since usually the provider denies technologies and not vice-versa. Specifically, the South African offer of knowledge for improving the Brazilian method for uranium enrichment in exchange for Brazil’s heavy components for nuclear power plants could be considered a good deal for Brazil’s incipient atomic sector. However, the documents demonstrate Brazil’s caution in the atomic realm, even if the country continues its collaboration with several countries in the global nuclear market. The top level of the military regime deliberately decided to avoid possible international measures against the collaboration with Pretoria that could affect the future of the program. The documents also showed how the freedom of action of the Brazilian nuclear company, Nuclebrás, was limited by governmental decision. Brazil, unsatisfied by the cooperation with West Germany, opted for developing the nuclear fuel cycle in unsafeguarded laboratories through the active collaboration between civilian research centers and the three military branches.

Read the article

Patti, Carlo. (2018). The forbidden cooperation: South Africa–Brazil nuclear relations at the turn of the 1970s. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 61(2), e006. Epub December 03, 2018.

About the authors

Carlo Patti is an Adjunct Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of Goiás. PhD in International Relations from the University of Florence in 2012 (

Michelly S. Geraldo, PhD Candidate in International Strategic Studies at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (

How to cite this interview

aclessa, "The forbidden cooperation: South Africa – Brazil nuclear relations at the turn of the 1970s – an interview with Carlo Patti, by Michelly Geraldo," in Instituto Brasileiro de Relações Internacionais, 23/01/2019,

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