On September 18, 1990, long-held suspicions about Brazil’s nuclear intentions seemed to be officially and dramatically confirmed. Brazil’s first popularly elected President in 29 years, Fernando Collor, on the scene of what his aides suggested was a nuclear test site, terminated a covert nuclear weapons project which had been steered by the military. The New York Times reported it out from Brazil:

In a first step to dismantle the bomb project, Mr. Collor flew photographers and officials to a previously off-limits air base in the Cachimbo mountain range of remote central Amazon. As the heads of the three military services watched – looking ill at ease in the photographs – the President threw a symbolic shovelful of cement into a hole four feet in diameter and 1,050 feet deep.

I read this article the day after it appeared in print, and its conclusion–neatly summarized by the International Herald Tribune‘s front-page headline: “Brazil Uncovers Plan by Military to Build Atomic Bomb and Stops It”–has been with me and has probably subconsciously influenced my thinking about Brazil’s nuclear program for nearly a quarter century.

Last month, my colleague Togzhan Kassenova published this account of Brazil’s nuclear program. Her introduction included these remarks about frequently encountered narratives that try to explain what Brazil was doing in the nuclear energy field:

“Brazilian” voices are less heard, outside of official statements, are are quite different from the external observers. Whereas the commonly accepted external view is that Brazil pursued a nuclear-weapons program, Brazilian political, technical, and intellectual elites still debate whether the country undertook such an effort.

Many people living in the northern hemisphere might be surprised to learn that Brazilians don’t agree about what we had been told decades ago was an open and shut case: that Brazil had a secret nuclear weapons program, and that a charismatic, vigorous, and democratically-empowered leader shut that program down. What was there to disagree about? After all, the Brazilian government itself exposed the project to the world. Weren’t those holes at Cachimbo all the proof that Brazilians required to conclude that their country was secretly working on nuclear weapons and, further, that the masterminds were probably far enough along to begin preparations for a nuclear test?

Collor’s photo-op at Cachimbo is just one detail in a long cat-and-mouse history of Brazilian nuclear activities. But prompted by Togzhan’s passage about the importance of nuclear narratives, I decided to look into that detail and see for myself if what the New York Times was told then matched what Brazilians conclude about this matter today.

I found some “Brazilian voices” which were in and around the nuclear program when these events began unfolding after Collor won a run-off presidential vote at the end of 1989. What they relate significantly qualified the picture at Cachimbo which in 1990 seized the imagination of the outside world and which has lingered in our collective memory.

What Collor Knew

In September 1990, government officials told reporters that military officers shocked the President by disclosing a clandestine nuclear project, and after a stormy confrontation, Collor flew into Cachimbo with a bevy of top officials and reporters and filled up one of two bore holes (one participant last week told me there were in fact three holes) with cement (I was told instead that he used lime).

Last week I was also reminded by Brazilian sources that in 1990 the holes at Cachimbo had already been known to the Brazilian public and parliament for four years, after local media reported that the Air Force beginning in 1981 had systematically studied the terrain’s geology and hydrology and then drilled shafts meant for a nuclear weapons test or for disposing of nuclear waste. The government brushed off the story, but the holes weren’t a secret.

Brazilian witnesses in all of this told me that, shortly after Collor won the 1989 election, the military asked him to support their nuclear project, as they had asked his predecessor Jose Sarney. Collor, I’m told, would not agree, and thereafter prepared to exploit the Cachimbo matter for all it was worth.  For starters, Collor aimed to curb the Brazilian military’s independence in nuclear affairs–first and foremost by short-circuiting officials in the Army and the Air Force who under Sarney had been angling for political and financial support to develop the capability to conduct peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs). “Collor was a genuine public relations talent,” one former official recalled, and “the holes in the ground were, in effect, a hoax.” During the 1980s, he said, “some people in the military wanted government money for their own nuclear projects, and they couldn’t get it unless they showed that they were making progress. That’s why they drilled the holes.”

When Collor’s officials inspected the shafts, they found that they were worthless for testing nuclear explosives. There was no cabling or other support infrastructure, and the bottom of the holes was full of water. The shafts weren’t perpendicular. “If anyone would have tried to test a  nuclear bomb in there, they would have failed,” the former official said.

The military ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985, and in retrospect it would appear that the holes at Cachimbo provided Collor a golden opportunity to set back potential adversaries to civilian rule. But other things were on his mind as well. Beginning in 1980 Brazil and Argentina embarked on a bilateral nuclear cooperation relationship, and both Collor and Argentine President Carlos Menem, elected a few months before Collor, were committed to deepening it. Demonstrating that civilians were firmly in control of Brazil’s nuclear program would help. Collor’s biggest domestic challenge was to defeat hyperinflation. Part of the recipie was to generate international confidence, and filling the holes was in step with a broader message that Collor’s leadership would be transparent, reliable, and dedicated to international cooperation.

Brazil and PNEs

Brazil was interested in PNEs from the beginning of its nuclear program. This cable shows that the U.S. Department of State was closely following Brazil’s interest in PNE’s as early as 1967. Brazil wasn’t alone in looking into PNEs in those days, of course, but because it was not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty its interest–like South Africa’s–didn’t preclude that the technology would be used for atomic weapons. Brazil’s military was, in fact, keen to pursue the PNE option, and, eventually, it was the Army and the Air Force that pressed to do PNE work, while the Navy instead set its sights on centrifuge uranium enrichment and development of a propulsion reactor for submarines.

In South Africa, a PNE program morphed into a secret program to develop a  nuclear weapons deterrent. In Brazil, the trajectory of the military’s PNE interest was blocked by civilian leaders, so the nature of Brazil’s interest in nuclear explosives was, in the view of Brazilians I talked to last week, more ambiguous. But not long after his Cachimbo appearance, Collor formally repudiated his country’s interest in PNEs before the United Nations General  Assembly.

In 2009, a Brazilian research scientist at the Army Technology Center (CETEX) published his doctoral thesis presented to Brazil’s Institute of Military Engineering, containing many details on the science behind nuclear explosions. The publication led to questions from the IAEA about the relationship between the author and the military’s nuclear legacy. The U.S. government may also have had questions about references in the text to U.S. warhead development. There were initial differences of official opinion about how Brazil should respond, and problems with the IAEA. Defense Minister Nelson Jobim ultimately dismissed the matter as irrrelevant to Brazil’s nuclear program. “The mere possibility of publishing this work in Brazil, and the material’s free circulation, serve as eloquent proof of the non-existence of an unauthorized nuclear program in the country,” Jobim said. But could information in the book have come from Brazil’s military past?

A More Nuanced Context

Every country that partakes in nuclear activities has an official narrative to explain these activities to the world. Here are 111 of these narratives from 2013, all posted on the IAEA website.

Brazil’s narrative has evolved over time, subject to both internal and external developments. Re-examining the record of events from a quarter century ago, it appears that Brazilians have over time walked the government’s 1990 story line back. What transpired at Cachimbo then appears to have a different context today where these elements prevail:

  • Collor viewed Cachimbo as an opportunity to throw the military onto the defensive while demonstrating to Argentina, the U.S. and others that his government would be a reliable foreign partner
  • Prior to the Cachimbo event Collor had been interacting with the military for nearly a year including about its current and future nuclear ambitions.
  • In 1989-90 all three branches of Brazil’s military sought government funding and support for nuclear activities which Collor was not willing to provide.
  • Collor and his aides were particularly determined to prevent the military’s pressing interest in a PNE project from becoming a nuclear weapons project.
  • During the 1980s the Air Force dug the holes at Cachimbo to convince Sarney it was making progress related to a PNE effort. Collor found out that the shafts could not have been used to test nuclear explosives or dispose of nuclear waste.

In 1990 Brazil’s new civilian leaders made a dramatic statement which was intended to hold the military at bay and assure the world that the new government would be a reliable and transparent partner–including in line with global concern about nuclear weapons proliferation which would intensify as soon as the first Gulf War was over. Collor stepping into the breach to symbolically crush what was described as a secret nuclear weapons project helped convey that message.

Today, witnesses to those events present a more nuanced and modest picture. They recall now that some personalities in the armed services wanted a more ambitious, military-run nuclear program including a PNE effort, but also that no Brazilian government had ever approved or funded this, and that Brazil’s “secret nuclear program” was less a reality than it was a vision entertained by its advocates.

Prior to Collor’s election, denials in Brazil and elsewhere discouraged Brazilians from seeking the whole truth about their country’s nuclear activities. During the 1980s senior Brazilian nuclear executives seeking foreign cooperation routinely claimed there was  no “parallel” nuclear project. German government spokesmen asserted on the record–in contradiction of Bonn’s own intelligence findings–that Brazil’s nuclear program had no military dimension.

Today Brazilians have better resources to help them draw their own independent conclusions. Researchers led by Matias Spektor at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas are reconstructing the history of Brazil’s entire nuclear enterprise. What they are finding so far documents a long-term interest in both PNEs and nuclear weapons in Brazil, but also that there was never a top-down nuclear weapons effort anywhere in the government, and that Collor, in addition to keeping the Army and Air Force away from nuclear matters, also defunded the Navy’s nuclear program. A chunk of the research, from Carlo Patti, is here.

One critical piece of evidence in the government’s 1990 story has never been confirmed. The New York Times reported that Collor acted in response to a “50-page classified report” on the secret nuclear program which had reached his desk. That report has never surfaced. Some people in and around Collor’s government last week suggested to me that its existence may have been a rumor.

Did Brazil’s military in the past harbor hidden nuclear weapons ambitions? Were the services actually doing any work on nuclear weapons development? One government adviser told me the answer was a qualified yes. “There was a secret project, but it was at a very preliminary stage” when it was interrupted in 1990. Since  then the version of events reflected in the New York Times story has largely prevailed in the United States. But Brazilians have moved on. The 1990 narrative has been revised. That may have led a few people to claim that Brazil never had any interest in nuclear weapons, but, far more importantly, it may have encouraged Brazilians to be more confident about their country’s nonproliferation profile.

This article was originally published on Arms Control Wonk.