Brazilian politics are famous for their unpredictability, and Marina Silva’s sudden emergence as a presidential front-runner is the latest example. But how she would lead as president should she win the October 5 election is not clear. “Marina is a big question mark,” observed a Brazilian foreign policy analyst. Predicting her choices on specific policy questions is difficult at best. 

Togzhan Kassenova
Kassenova is a nonresident fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment.
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This is particularly true, and particularly important, when it comes to nuclear issues, both domestic and international. Brazil has one of the most advanced nuclear programs in Latin America, but the presidential hopeful has said remarkably little on the subject. And what can be gleaned is far from a clear picture. 

A Remarkable Rise

Even those Brazilians who do not plan to vote for Marina in the presidential election on October 5 admit that she has an incredible story. Born in the Amazon rainforest, illiterate until the age of sixteen, and having experienced poverty with her parents struggling to feed her and her siblings, Marina went on to become an internationally known environmentalist, a high-ranking official in the government of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and a candidate with an impressive 20 million votes in Brazil’s 2010 presidential elections. 

She entered the 2014 election campaign as the number-two on the ticket of Eduardo Campos of the Brazilian Socialist Party. Until late summer, the Campos-Silva team held third place in the polls behind the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party, and Aécio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party. 

But then Eduardo Campos died tragically in a plane crash in August while on the campaign trail. The Brazilian Socialist Party nominated Marina as its new presidential candidate. Since then, the polls have consistently shown Marina Silva and Dilma Rousseff neck and neck in the upcoming vote. 

Amid the excitement surrounding her remarkable rise, the potential president’s positions on nuclear issues have been largely missing. Marina’s proposed government program does not contain a single reference to nuclear energy, nuclear disarmament, or nuclear nonproliferation. What Brazil’s nuclear policy will be under the next president is not a trivial matter. Brazil is one of only three countries in Latin America to produce nuclear energy, one of a few countries in the world able to produce nuclear fuel, and the only non-nuclear-weapon state to be developing a nuclear-powered submarine.

Nuclear Energy

Brazil is currently highly reliant on hydro-resources to serve its energy needs, though the role of nuclear power in the country has increased over time. As of 2014, roughly 3 percent of Brazil’s electricity comes from nuclear plants—Angra 1 and Angra 2. After a twenty-year interruption, Brazil restarted work on its third nuclear power plant, Angra 3, which is expected to become operational in 2018. 

Proponents of expanding the country’s use of nuclear energy argue that Brazil’s reliance on hydro-resources makes the country vulnerable to an energy crisis. Disruption in electricity generation during droughts jeopardizes the country’s projected development growth. 

Until the 2011 disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the Brazilian government seemed to agree that the use of nuclear energy needed to be significantly increased, and it planned to construct up to eight new reactors. After the Fukushima accident, all references to new reactors beyond Angra 3 disappeared from government planning documents. 

The nuclear industry has been trying to influence the presidential hopefuls’ positions on the issue of nuclear energy expansion. The Brazilian Association for Development of Nuclear Activities, a nonprofit organization of companies in the nuclear power sector, developed a program, “Defining Brazil’s Nuclear Program: A Need for the Country’s Development,” specifically geared toward the candidates. The document argues that the government needs to build at least four additional nuclear power plants by 2030, or eight by 2040. And that in order to start adding capacity in time to meet future demand whoever wins the 2014 election needs to make decisions on new nuclear power plants in early 2015.

Marina Silva has long been critical of nuclear energy. Serving as Brazil’s minister of the environment in Lula’s cabinet between 2002 and 2007, she resigned from the post in protest over a number of issues, including the government’s decision to resume construction of Angra 3. In 2012, together with Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and over 50 organizations and individuals, she signed a letter urging world leaders to move away from “expensive and dangerous nuclear power.”

As a presidential candidate, Marina has reaffirmed her views. Her official campaign website reminds voters that she was the only one on the National Energy Policy Council to vote against restarting Angra 3 construction. In Marina’s words, “one of the largest problems with nuclear energy is that nobody knows what to do with the waste.”

Yet, confusingly, the initial draft of the government program that Marina Silva’s campaign released in late August said the share of nuclear energy in Brazil’s energy mix should be increased. Only hours later, however, Marina’s staff issued a statement blaming a technical error for the nuclear energy reference. Marina’s revised program calls for the “realignment of Brazil’s energy policy to focus on renewable and sustainable sources.” A mistake likely caused by accepting contributions from multiple authors exposed a campaign struggling to deal with the pressure of impending elections.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is considered to be reluctantly accepting of nuclear energy. Dilma’s government continues to finance Angra 3 construction, but she does not openly support the nuclear energy industry, and the government does not seek to expand the production of nuclear energy beyond the third power plant. 

All told, if Marina becomes Brazil’s new president, industry might have even less support from the top political leadership than it has now.

Nuclear Diplomacy

When it comes to international issues, it appears that Marina’s camp hasn’t given much thought to any questions related to nuclear diplomacy, such as Iran’s enrichment program or nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. This is not entirely out of the ordinary, as nuclear issues have taken a backseat to other agenda items during Dilma’s presidency as well.  

But this is a shift from the ambitious years of Lula’s government, when Brazil’s foreign policy shined brightly. Lula enjoyed the international spotlight and engaged in active presidential diplomacy. He also allowed Brazil’s able diplomatic corps, led by then minister of external relations Celso Amorim, to confidently and actively pursue various foreign policy agendas. 

One of the more daring and controversial attempts to influence the international debate took place in 2010 when Lula and Amorim, together with Turkey’s leaders, attempted to resolve the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. They negotiated a trilateral agreement—the Tehran Declaration—that was meant to pave the way for negotiations between the West and Iran. 

While that particular episode did not result in a breakthrough and was rejected by the West, it did prompt short-lived anticipation among international observers that Brasília could become an interesting, new player on the global nuclear scene. This, however, did not happen. 

It now appears that Brazil’s ambitious foray into the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program was a fluke made possible by multiple factors—including the unusual tandem of Lula and Amorim—that are unlikely to be repeated in the foreseeable future.

Under Dilma, Brazil’s foreign ministry has lost its luster and has been relegated to being just another ministry. While Lula reached out to then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and counted on Brazil’s soft power to resolve the impasse over Tehran’s nuclear program, Dilma distanced herself from the regime, citing its poor human rights record.

Marina, meanwhile, is expected to return Brazil’s foreign policy establishment to some of its former glory. Two weeks before the election, while visiting Washington, DC, Marina’s campaign coordinator Maurício Rands criticized the foreign ministry’s lack of prestige under the current government. 

But Marina will likely be similar to Dilma when it comes to nuclear issues and keep her distance from Iran and its nuclear program. She criticized then president Lula in 2010 for his active engagement with Ahmadinejad.

Marina might distinguish herself from both Lula and Dilma on one noteworthy nuclear issue. For years, the international nonproliferation community and Brasília have been at odds over the enhanced nuclear safeguards codified in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol. 

Brazil is already implementing nuclear safeguards that are designed to provide the international community with confidence that it only uses nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. However, as a country with an advanced nuclear program, Brazil is subject to outside pressure to allow IAEA inspectors even greater access to its nuclear facilities under the Additional Protocol. 

Brazil has insisted over the past decade that it will not sign the IAEA Additional Protocol. Brasília refuses to accept additional nonproliferation obligations while nuclear-weapon states do not demonstrate sufficient progress toward nuclear disarmament. Opponents of the Additional Protocol also argue that Brazil is doing enough to provide confidence that its nuclear activities are peaceful. Some critics in Brazil are concerned that granting greater access to Brazil’s nuclear facilities would make the country vulnerable to industrial espionage, a claim that international safeguards experts deem unfounded.

In contrast to Lula and Dilma, Marina Silva criticized Brazil’s reluctance to adhere to more stringent safeguards. In 2010 she publicly argued that the country should sign the IAEA Additional Protocol because not signing had put Brazil into a “rather delicate situation” and looked strange since Brazil only pursued nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Yet, whether Marina would follow her own advice and push for Brazil’s adherence to the IAEA Additional Protocol should she become president is an open question. 

For the most part, Brazil’s presidential campaign has been focused on domestic economic and social questions. That focus is natural, and the absence of nuclear policy from the discussion is not surprising. Yet, whoever wins the election should surely devote time and effort to thinking about these issues given the country’s prominent role in the global nuclear system.