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Venezuela's Search for Nuclear Power - or Nuclear Prestige

Sarah Diehl

Research Associate, Monterey Institute of International Studies

  • Presidents Medvedev and Chávez in Caracas, November 2008. Presidents Medvedev and Chávez in Caracas, November 2008.
    Source: kremlin.ru
  • Presidents Ahmadinejad and Chávez Presidents Ahmadinejad and Chávez
    Source: www.minci.gob

In late November 2008, Venezuela signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia during a state visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Caracas. This agreement, much touted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, raises the issue of the extent of Venezuela's nuclear ambitions. Venezuela has almost no nuclear infrastructure, little nuclear expertise, and is a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Latin American nuclear-weapon-free zone. Nevertheless, Chávez has been a vocal supporter of Iran's right to develop a complete nuclear fuel cycle despite UN sanctions and has sought nuclear alliances with countries potentially capable of developing nuclear weapons. Moreover, despite Venezuela's extensive oil exports to the United States, Chávez has been an outspoken critic of the United States, which he has accused of planning to invade his country to seize its oil and overthrow him.[1] At least one analyst has concluded that his nationalistic rhetoric suggests that Chávez could be serious about obtaining not only nuclear power reactors, but also nuclear weapons.[2] This issue brief examines Venezuela's nuclear history, its relations with Iran and other potential nuclear suppliers, and its recent nuclear cooperation deal with Russia. It then assesses whether Chávez's talk of nuclear power and quest for nuclear cooperation are aimed at a new source of energy, new alliances to boost his prestige and counter U.S. influence in the region, or possibly a new weapon.

History of Venezuela's Nuclear and Nonproliferation Efforts Prior to Chávez

Until recently, Venezuela has shown no signs of possibly posing a risk of nuclear proliferation as the country has almost no nuclear facilities or expertise and is a member of the core nuclear nonproliferation agreements.[3] Venezuela became a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in August 1957, after purchasing an RV-1 (3 megawatt) research reactor from the U.S. General Electric Company in 1956. The reactor, which went critical in July 1960, was operated by the Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones (IVIC) under IAEA safeguards; it was officially shut down in January 1994.[4] Humberto Fernandez Moran, the scientist who established IVIC while Minister of Science and Education, "was forced to leave the country in 1958 for having collaborated with the military rule of Marcos Perez Jimenez;" he later worked and taught in the United States.[5] According to one source, the reactor site "is now used for food processing irradiation, medical sterilization and research."[6]

In February 1967, Venezuela signed the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (Tlatelolco Treaty); it ratified the treaty three years later in March 1970. That treaty, which finally entered into force in October 2002, prohibits the acquisition, production, use, testing or possession of nuclear weapons in the region.[7] Further demonstrating its support for nonproliferation, Venezuela joined the NPT in 1975, and negotiated an IAEA Safeguards Agreement covering all its nuclear activities that entered into force in March 1982.[8]

In July 1979, Venezuela signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Brazil regarding cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Four years later, in November 1983, the two countries signed an agreement that provided for cooperation in the research, design, development, and use of experimental and operational reactors; research on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy; and prospecting "for minerals with nuclear uses."[9] The agreement placed responsibility for its execution with the Brazilian institutions in charge of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and the National Council for the Development of the Nuclear Industry of Venezuela. There is little public information on any activity carried out under the agreement; one 2007 Brazilian newspaper article noted that the Brazilian National Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN) developed uranium mining technology that was later transferred to Venezuela.[10]

As Venezuela has vast oil reserves to meet its energy needs, its leaders historically have shown little interest in developing nuclear power. In the early 1990s, Venezuelan scientists did explore the possibility of using nuclear power to process heavy crude oil, but no plans were made to develop such technology.[11]

Chávez Calls for Venezuela to Develop Nuclear Power

In 1998, Chávez, a former military officer, was elected president on a populist platform that called for the country to use its oil revenues to support social welfare programs at home and to influence like-minded anti-U.S. leaders in the region and around the world.[12] A complete description of Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution" and it foreign policy implications is beyond the scope of this essay, but according to Dr. Harold Trinkunas, "President Chávez's Bolivarian foreign policy seeks to defend the revolution in Venezuela, promotes a sovereign and autonomous leadership role for Venezuela in Latin America, opposes globalization and neoliberal economic polices, and works towards the emergence of a multipolar world in which U.S. hegemony is checked."[13] Chávez's announcements since 2005 about building a nuclear power program and the nuclear cooperation alliances that he has sought may have more to do with his foreign policy goals and anti-U.S. stance than with any actual need or plans to develop nuclear power — or nuclear weapons.

As the world's fifth largest oil exporter and rich in hydroelectric resources, Venezuela does not need to develop nuclear power to meet its energy needs. Moreover, as Trinkunas has pointed out, "there is no constituency for a nuclear program in Venezuela outside of Chávez's inner circle": the public does not believe that the country needs nuclear power, no bureaucracy or scientific community promotes the development of nuclear power, and the military has not requested nuclear technology for national defense purposes.[14] Thus, Venezuela's nuclear plans appear to have more to do with Chávez's personal and political ambitions than with the energy needs of the country. Notably, Chávez first began to speak publicly about acquiring nuclear technology during international summits and interviews in 2005, when Venezuela was the only IAEA board member to vote against a U.S.-driven resolution urging Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program.[15] In May 2005, while defending Iran's nuclear program that Western countries suspected has a nuclear weapons component, Chávez reportedly hinted that Venezuela was negotiating a nuclear cooperation deal with Iran.[16]

Brazil and Argentina

In October 2005, during the Ibero-American Summit meeting, Chávez announced unexpectedly that Venezuela might acquire as many as a dozen nuclear power reactors from Brazil and/or Argentina.[17] The announcement took Brazilian and Argentine nuclear officials by surprise, and was viewed by nuclear proliferation analysts as "braggadocio," another way of challenging the U.S. administration, and a bid to attain the prestige that comes with having a nuclear reactor.[18] Then President George W. Bush said that it might be fine for Venezuela to have a nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes, although he was not sure it made sense for such an oil rich country to pursue nuclear power.[19] Meanwhile the U.S. administration, troubled by Chávez's support for Iran's nuclear program and anti-U.S. rhetoric, reminded Brazil and Argentina of their obligations as members in good standing of the NPT and Nuclear Suppliers Group.[20] In May 2006, the United States imposed an arms embargo on Venezuela, and encouraged other countries to do the same, because of Venezuela's close ties with Iran and Cuba and its failure to cooperate fully with U.S. antiterrorism efforts.[21]

While Brazil has had a long-standing nuclear cooperation agreement with Venezuela, Brazilian officials responded equivocally to Chávez's proposed nuclear cooperation. Initially, Marco Aurelio Garcia, national security adviser to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, suggested that Brazil would be pleased to provide peaceful nuclear technology to Venezuela. However, while Brazilian officials might have been eager for the potential business, they were wary of Chávez's bid to be a regional leader, his ties to Iran, and his antagonistic relationship with the United States. Brazil's Foreign Minister Celso Amorin emphasized that Brazil had no concrete plans for nuclear cooperation with Venezuela.[22] Like Iran, Brazil has developed centrifuge technology to enrich uranium for nuclear power plant fuel, and had disputes with the IAEA about inspections of that technology.[23] Following Chávez's announcement, Odair Goncalves, director of Brazil's National Commission on Nuclear Energy, made it clear that transfer of uranium enrichment technology to Venezuela would be "unthinkable."[24] One media analyst reported that Venezuelan energy officials were themselves uncertain as to how the country would benefit from a proposed nuclear cooperation agreement.[25]

In October 2005, a delegation from Venezuela's oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A., reportedly signed a letter of intent to purchase a small CAREM (Argentine Modular Elements Plant) reactor to use for processing heavy oil in the Orinoco Oil Belt.[26] However, that reactor was still just a prototype,[27] and there is no indication that the deal was completed. Like its Brazilian counterpart, the Argentine government reacted warily to possible nuclear cooperation with Venezuela.[28] While Argentine officials welcomed Venezuela's promised trade and investment in regional energy projects, including a proposed natural gas pipeline from Venezuela to Argentina, they were also under pressure from the United States "to be responsible members of the NPT and to be cautious of nuclear trade with Venezuela."[29] There is no public information suggesting that Argentina provided nuclear technology to Venezuela. In February 2007, Argentina and Venezuela once again reportedly signed a letter of intent on peaceful nuclear cooperation, which included developing and building a reactor to extract crude oil in Orinoco, exchanging information on the medical uses of nuclear energy, and training Venezuelan students in nuclear physics and engineering.[30]

Ties with Iran

Venezuela's close ties with Iran and the resulting U.S. disapproval seem to have discouraged Brazil and Argentina from aggressively pursuing nuclear cooperation with Venezuela. As Claudio Mendoza, the former head of physics research at the government-run Instituto Venezolano de Investigacion Cientifica said, "Chávez's support for Tehran's nuclear ambitions has likely undermined his government's chances of foreign co-operation with the exception of Iran."[31] Venezuela, the fifth largest oil exporter, and Iran, the second largest oil exporter, began to build stronger ties after Venezuela hosted the 2000 OPEC meeting in Caracas.[32] Iran and Venezuela share an interest in maintaining the price of oil, developing Venezuela's oil-rich areas, and more importantly in rejecting U.S. dominance and interference around the world.[33] As the United States and other Western powers intensified their questioning of Iran's intention given its incomplete reporting to the IAEA and evidence that it might be pursing nuclear weapons, Venezuela came to Iran's defense and supported its policy of enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.[34] The relationship between the two countries intensified as Chávez became a vociferous supporter of Iran's nuclear program and critic of Western countries that have sought UN Security Council resolutions requiring Iran to stop enriching uranium for power plant fuel. In return for Venezuela's support at the IAEA and UN Security Council, Iran has entered into over 150 energy, development, commercial, and financial agreements with Venezuela and allegedly has invested billions of dollars in joint projects.[35]

In February 2006, when the IAEA Board of Governors voted to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for sanctions, only Venezuela, Cuba, and Syria opposed the decision.[36] At that time, the Iranian media hinted that Venezuela might receive Iranian nuclear technology, and Chávez's opponents suggested that Venezuela might export uranium in return.[37] An April 4, 2006 Washington Post story heightened concern about the uranium mining rumor: "One serious question that needs to be posed is why would Iran, which already has a uranium mining operation be interested in uranium deposits in Venezuela? Potential answers all smack of nuclear proliferation." [38] However, both the Venezuelan Defense Minister Raul Salazar and a U.S. State Department official denied that there was evidence that Venezuela had cooperated with Iran on uranium mining activities.[39] Chávez has called allegations concerning nuclear co-operation with Iran "part of a US-inspired campaign to taint his government...." [40]

While Venezuelan officials have generally denied nuclear cooperation with Iran, they have intensified military, commercial, and political ties with the Islamic Republic. In January 2007, Venezuelan Defense Minister Raul Isais Baduel announced that Venezuela was working on technical military cooperation with Iran, which included plans to build unmanned aircraft and refurbish the U.S.-made F-5 fighter jets that Washington will no longer maintain because of a May 2006 ban on arms sales to Venezuela.[41] In 2007, Venezuela signed several new agreements in different fields including agriculture, economic cooperation, energy and oil development, heavy machinery factories, and mining.[42]

Accounts vary on the value of the trade between the two countries. According to Iran's Deputy Minister for Industry and Mines, in 2007 the value of trade between Venezuela and Iran amounted to $17 billion. [43] However, a year later, Venezuelan officials reportedly stated that Iran had "invested more than $7 billion in their country — in plants to assemble cars, tractors, farm machinery and bicycles, as well as oil and that bilateral trade has reached $4.6 billion."[44] According to one journalist, these amounts may be too high as Venezuelan newspapers reported that many joint projects have been delayed and local officials have skimmed off some of the funds.[45]

In November 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives took note of Iran's growing ties with Venezuela and approved a resolution (H.Res 435) "expressing concern about Iran's efforts to expand its influence in Latin America, and noting Venezuela's increasing cooperation with Iran."[46] Of particular concern to U.S. representatives is Iran's dogged pursuit of a uranium enrichment capability despite UN sanctions, and its support for Islamic militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah. In March 2008, following a Colombia-led raid on a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) camp that reportedly linked the Venezuelan government to the terrorist organization, Congressman Connie Mack (R-FL) reintroduced a bill (H.Res. 1049) calling for Venezuela to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.[47] The draft bill pointed to President Chávez's "strong relationship" with Iran as demonstrated by: Venezuela's "200 bilateral agreements with Iran"; Iran's reported offer to help Venezuela with a nuclear program; and Chávez's strong support for Iran's controversial nuclear program. The bill also noted the possibility that Iran could use Venezuela to smuggle terrorists, drugs, and weapons into the United States. The Venezuelan Embassy in the United States posted a point-by-point denial of the resolution's charges, arguing that Chávez had "emphatically condemned any kind of terrorism" and Venezuela had ratified 10 anti-terrorism accords. With regards to Iran, the embassy stated: "Venezuela and Iran also have discussed cooperation on nuclear energy, but we are not aware of any significant developments as a result of these discussions."[48] While denying any plans to work with Iran on nuclear energy or to exploit the country's uranium reserves for military purposes, the embassy did reiterate Venezuela's position that "every country has the sovereign right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."[49]

Congress did not pass a resolution finding that Venezuela is a state sponsor of terrorism. However, in August 2008, the Department of State under theIran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act imposed sanctions on the Venezuelan Military Industries Companies (CAVIM), along with 12 other foreign companies, for the transfer of items either barred by multilateral export control lists or otherwise "having the potential to make a material contribution to the development of weapons of mass destruction of cruise or ballistic missile systems."[50] Two months later in a further measure to stop WMD proliferation, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Export Development Bank of Iran (EDBI) as providing financial services to Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics that allow this entity to develop Tehran's alleged WMD programs. The Treasury Department, acting pursuant to Executive Order 13382, also designated three other businesses owned or acting on the behalf of EDBI, including Banco Internacional de Desarollo, C.A., a financial institution in Venezuela.[51] These U.S. actions point to a concern that Venezuela will help Iran circumvent UN and U.S. sanctions designed to prevent Iran and Syria from developing WMD and ballistic missile programs. In December 2008, media reports stated that an Iranian firm, Shahid Bagheri, under UN sanctions for furthering Iran's ballistic missile program had "used the Venezuelan airline Conviasa to ship computers and missile engines" to Syria in exchange for elite Iranian military forces providing law enforcement and intelligence training to Venezuelan troops.[52] While these reports raise concerns about Venezuela's assistance to a possible WMD proliferator, April 2009 meetings between Chávez and new U.S. President Barack Obama suggest a rapprochement between Venezuela and the United States that could lessen Chávez's interest in cooperating with Iran.[53]

Technical Cooperation with Belarus

Along with Iran, Belarus, a country with nuclear power reactors and a stockpile of highly enriched uranium, has also been rumored to be a possible nuclear partner for Venezuela. During a state visit in July 2006, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Chávez signed a Joint Declaration of the Republic of Belarus and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela promising to seal "the long-term strategic partnership of both nations." Specifically, the parties signed "intergovernmental agreements on cooperation in the field of science, technologies, energy and petrochemistry."[54] The Belarusian state web site announcing the meeting, suggested that the two leaders discussed how their images and intentions are allegedly distorted by the mass media, perhaps a veiled jab at the United States. Chávez played up the anti-U.S. aspect of their partnership the following year during a second state visit, when he highlighted the possibility that Venezuela might receive technology transfers from Belarus, Iran, Russia, and China, but not the United States.[55] While public accounts do not mention nuclear cooperation, they do note that Venezuela and Belarus again signed several cooperation agreements involving technology transfer and the energy and economic sectors.[56] In 2008, the two countries inaugurated the Venezuelan-Belarusian Center for Technical and Scientific Cooperation in Minsk, aimed at strengthening academic ties between the two countries, and possibly at training Venezuelan students in nuclear related areas.[57] As part of his effort to dilute the influence of the United States — and perhaps to seek a nuclear cooperation partner — Chávez has become "a good customer of the Belarusian arms industry" and a good friend of Lukashenko, known as "the last European dictator."[58]

Talk of Nuclear Cooperation with France

In 2008 while Venezuela entities were being sanctioned by the United States for cooperation with Iran, and Venezuela was starting technical cooperation with Belarus, the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said that his country would be "willing to help Venezuela develop a civilian nuclear power program." Kouchner also requested that his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro act as a go-between with Iranian officials in talks on Iran's nuclear program operating despite UN sanctions.[59] Specifically, Kouchner asker Maduro to relay the European Union's offer to discuss possible resolutions; Maduro reportedly agreed because Iranian officials have refused to answer several important IAEA questions about their nuclear program.[60] However, at an October 5, 2008 joint press conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki stated that Iran would not stop its uranium enrichment activities and in the future could supply other countries with nuclear fuel. At the same time, Maduro emphasized the close ties between Iran and Venezuela and hinted that possible nuclear alliances were more about opposing the United States than the actual transfer of technology: "The U.S. sought to impose economic sanctions against Venezuela to weaken its military might but we managed to thwart the plot by broadening cooperation with Russia and France along with other friendly countries."[61]

Russia-Venezuela Nuclear Deal, November 2008

In November 2008, Director of Rosatom Sergei Kiriyenko noted that his company had been in talks about nuclear cooperation with Venezuela since 2005.[62] While few public sources mention the progress of these talks, Venezuela has been increasing its arms purchases from Russia since 2005, and the two countries did sign a nuclear cooperation agreement in November 2008. As one Russian analyst has pointed out, Chávez's interest in arms deals with Russia quickened after the aborted coup in 2002, and intensified in late 2004, "when on the one hand his relations with the domestic opposition deteriorated and, on the other, when a new spiral of confrontation began with the United States."[63] Since 2005, Venezuela has spent $3-$4 billion on Russian arms, including 100,000 Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifles (and a factory to build more in Venezuela), 24 Sukhoi fighter jets, and 53 combat helicopters.[64] Questions about Venezuela's ability to pay for the arms purchases,[65] and 2006 U.S. sanctions on Russian companies Sukhoi and Rosoboroneksport for transferring weapons to Venezuela and Iran seemed to only make the countries more defiant about their arms trade.[66] In September 2008, along with announcing an oil and gas consortium and a nuclear cooperation deal, Russia promised to loan Venezuela $1 billion to buy additional Russian military technology, possibly including TOR-M1 air defense systems, Igla-S portable SAM systems, Il-78 aerial tankers, and Il-76 military cargo aircraft.[67]

Along with an increase in arms and energy deals, joint military exercises, and anti-U.S. rhetoric, Russian and Venezuelan officials proposed a nuclear cooperation deal.[68] In September 2008, Chávez made his seventh visit to Moscow in as many years and received Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's pledge that Russia would sign a nuclear cooperation accord with Venezuela.[69] The Russian press reported that the country's leading nuclear facilities contractor, Atomstroyeksport, had a general agreement on nuclear cooperation with Venezuela that was part of a larger Russian-Venezuelan plan to develop oil and gas deposits in Venezuela and Latin America.[70] But the importance of the agreements may be more political than economic. Russia ratcheted up its alliances with Venezuela at a time when the United States criticized Russia for its invasion of Georgia, sought to place missile defense installations in the Czech Republic and Poland, and worked to add former Eastern Bloc countries to NATO. For his part, Chávez used the impending nuclear deal to build domestic support during elections and counterbalance U.S. influence in Latin America.[71] One reporter assessing the dynamics of the announced nuclear deal wrote:

Moscow is engaged in a spat with Washington over the conflict in Georgia, plans for a U.S. missile shield in Russia's backyard and U.S. naval operations in the Black Sea. Suggesting it may transfer nuclear technology to one of the United States' main foes in the Western Hemisphere is another jab. It is welcomed by Chávez, who uses hostile relations with Washington to fire up supporters, some of whom are frustrated with high crime and soaring food prices.[72]

In November 2008, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said the view that Russia's rapprochement with Venezuela and other Latin American states was primarily about diplomatic sparring with the United States was "absolutely wrong." But at the same time, he noted that the Latin American countries had condemned U.S. policies toward the conflict in Georgia and supported Russian efforts to "force Tbilisi to peace."[73] Lavrov also emphasized that Russia and the Latin American countries are allies seeking a "new, safer and fairer world order," and rejecting attempts to impose unilateral solutions and to interfere in a state's internal affairs. He said that Russia intended to increase its high technology exports, including nuclear energy items, to strengthen its collaborations in Latin America.[74]

In the run-up to the signing of the nuclear cooperation agreement, the two parties were mindful that it would be an irritant to the United States and would raise the question of nuclear proliferation, particularly given Russia's assistance to Iran's nuclear program and Venezuela's close ties with Iran.[75] In November 2008, at the closing of the Fifth Meeting of the Russia-Venezuela High Level Intergovernmental Commission, Chávez remarked that Venezuela will always be accused of trying to build a nuclear bomb even though it only seeks to generate nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.[76]

During Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Caracas in late November 2008, Venezuelan Minister of Energy and Petroleum Rafael Dario Ramirez Carreno and Rosatom head Sergei Kiriyenko signed the long anticipated agreement on nuclear cooperation.

According to a Rosatom press release, the agreement established a framework for:

  1. joint research into controlled nuclear fusion;
  2. design, development, manufacture, and use of research reactors and nuclear power plants;
  3. production of radioisotopes for use in industry, medicine, and agriculture;
  4. help for Venezuela in the development of the infrastructure and legislative framework for peaceful use of nuclear energy;
  5. possible exploration and development of Venezuela's uranium and thorium deposits.[77]

The agreement reportedly specifies that that any nuclear equipment and know-how supplied by Russia will not be used by Venezuela "to produce nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, nor to achieve any military objectives, and will be under the guarantees of the IAEA." According to the Rosatom statement, the agreement will not involve the transfer of "any know-how or systems for chemical reprocessing of irradiated fuel, isotope enrichment of uranium or production of heavy water, its main components or any objects produced from them, nor uranium enriched to 20 per cent or above." [78] Following the signing, Rosatom head Kiriyenko stated that the deal should not raise proliferation concerns because Venezuela is an IAEA member and has signed "the entire packet of documents concerning the development of atomic energy."[79] Kiriyenko overlooked the fact that while Venezuela is an NPT member and has signed an IAEA Safeguard Agreement, Chávez has refused to sign the Additional Protocol, which would give the agency broader inspection powers. Kiriyenko also noted that Venezuela had not seriously explored its potential uranium fields and thus the agreement called for cooperation in geological exploration and possible uranium extraction.[80] Following the signing of nuclear cooperation and other agreements on energy, space, and investments, the Russian and Venezuelan navies held a joint military exercise (VENRUS 2008) in the Caribbean Sea.[81]

Medvedev's official statement on his visit to Caracas emphasized that Venezuela had become a key trading partner, noting that "our trade turnover has already topped $1 billion." It also noted that Russia and Venezuela had close positions on international issues and "proceed from the common striving for a multi-polar and stable world, which is built on the concerted will of nations."[82] Similarly, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Riabkov described the agreements with Venezuela as a very pragmatic business opportunity, and he tried to dispel the idea that Russia's main motivation was political.[83] Chávez, on the other hand, emphasized Venezuela's new military ties with Russia and cooperation agreements as steps to establishing a multi-polar world.[84] Russian commentators doubted the seriousness of the nuclear cooperation deal, one calling it "a political fantasy rather than an economically substantiated move" because neither country needs it.[85] Russian media pointed out that oil-producing Venezuela does not need nuclear energy, does not have the qualified engineers to run nuclear plants, and given the global economic downturn, cannot afford to build the required infrastructure.[86] Moreover, the Russian nuclear export industry is overextended, and Russian officials are dubious about Chávez's ability and willingness to follow through on the deal. Finally, both Russia and Venezuela may become less interested in using nuclear cooperation to send a signal to the United States given their improving relations with the Obama administration.[87] As a practical matter, while Russia may provide military arms to Venezuela, the United States is Venezuela's largest oil trading partner.[88]

Conclusion

While Chávez's anti-U.S. rhetoric and support for Iran's nuclear program may heighten concerns about Venezuela's pursuit of nuclear power, it appears unlikely that Venezuela's nuclear alliances will result in nuclear proliferation. Venezuela lacks nuclear technology and know-how. Also its nuclear and technical cooperation agreements and understandings with Brazil, Argentina, Belarus, Russia, and France contain little in the way of specifics and timelines. The accords and Chávez's statements about them appear to be aimed at increasing his and Venezuela's status and counterbalancing U.S. influence. Such alliances may become less important and less practical if Chávez achieves a rapprochement with the Obama administration and oil prices remain low. Moreover, while Chavez has claimed to be interested in attaining a nuclear reactor, he has stated on many occasions that Venezuela is not interested in nuclear weapons. Venezuela is a member of the NPT (although it has not signed an Additional Protocol), the Tlatelolco Treaty, and CTBT, and its nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia contains restrictions on the use of any transferred nuclear technology. Thus there are strong international and domestic checks on whatever nuclear weapons ambitions Chávez might harbor, and it is very unlikely that Venezuela could build or acquire a nuclear weapon without being detected by the international community.[89]

Sources:

[1] Juan Forero, "Venezuelan Thrives on Seeing Threats from 'Mr. Danger'," The New York Times, October 11, 2005; Carmen Gentile, "Venezuela Mobilization Comes Amid Continuing Concerns about Military Spending, Rebel Ties," World Politics Review, March 4, 2008, www.worldpoliticsreview.com.
[2] Sarah Espinosa, ""Hugo Chávez: Will Venezuela Choose to Go Nuclear?" in William C. Potter, Ed., Forecasting Nuclear Proliferation in the 21st Century: A Comparative Perspective (unpublished manuscript).
[3] Nina Gerami, Sharon Squassoni, "Venezuela: A Nuclear Profile," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Proliferation Analysis, December 18, 2008, www.carnegieendowment.org.
[4] "Reactor Details — RV-1, Venezuelan Reactor," International Atomic Energy Agency," last updated 30 June 1995, www.iaea.org; Gerami, Squassoni, "Venezuela: A Nuclear Profile." On safeguards agreements, see "Table II: Agreements Providing for Safeguards, Other than Those in Connection with the NPT or the Treaty of Tlatelolco, Approved by the Board of Governors as of 31 December 2001," IAEA Annual Report 2001, www.iaea.org.
[5] Russ Dallen, "Chávez Says Venezuela and Russia Will Build a Nuclear Reactor in Oil-rich Zulia," Latin American Herald Tribune, November 17, 2008.
[6] Patrick Markey, "Venezuela's Nuclear Energy Plan Makes US Wary," RedOrbit News, October 21, 2005, www.redorbit.com.
[7] James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, "Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (Treaty of Tlatelolco)," Inventory of International Nonproliferation Organizations and Regimes, Nuclear Threat Initiative, www.nti.org.
[8] James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, "IAEA Membership," Inventory of International Nonproliferation Organizations and Regimes, Nuclear Threat Initiative, www.nti.org.
[9] "Brazil and Venezuela Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Nuclear Energy for Peaceful Purposes," November 30, 1983, UN Treaty Collection, untreaty.un.org (Registered January 1992).
[10] Roberto Godoy, "Venezuela's 'Ambitious' Nuclear Power Stations Yet to Leave Drawing Board," O Estado de Sao Paulo, July 15, 2007, OSC doc LAP20070715358005. According to this article, Venezuela's "uranium reserves prospected to date total from 50,000 to 70,000 metric tons." See also, Larry Rohter and Juan Forero, "Venezuela's Leader Covets a Nuclear Energy Program," The New York Times, November 27, 2005.
[11] H. Carvajal Osorio, "Conference Article: Prospective high-temperature nuclear power applications in Venezuela for heavy oil exploitation," Technical committee meeting on high temperature applications of nuclear energy. Oarai (Japan), October 19-20, 1992, www.iaea.org.
[12] "An Axis in Need of Oiling," The Economist, October 23, 2008, Economist.com; Simon Romero, Michael Slackman and Clifford J. Levy, "3 Oil-rich Countries Face a Reckoning," New York Times, October 21, 2008.
[13] Harold A. Trikunas, "What is Really New about Venezuela's Bolivarian Foreign Policy?" Strategic Insights, Volume V, Issue 2, February 2006, www.ccc.nps.navy.mil.
[14] Harold A. Trinkunas, "Assessing Potential Nuclear Proliferation Networks in Latin America: 2006-2016," Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, November 2006, pp. 622-623.
[15] "Brazil Daily Assesses Nuclear Agreement with Argentina, Venezuela," O Estado de Sao Paulo, October 18, 2005, OSC Document LAP20051018032001.
[16] Rohter and Forero, "Venezuela's Leader Covets a Nuclear Energy Program," The New York Times, November 27, 2005. One media source reported that Venezuela already had signed a "nuclear cooperation protocol" with Iran in March 2005. ("Brazil Daily Assesses Nuclear Agreement with Argentina, Venezuela," O Estado de Sao Paulo, October 18, 2005, OSC Document LAP20051018032001.)
[17] "Brazil Daily Assesses Nuclear Agreement with Argentina, Venezuela"; Rohter and Forero, "Venezuela's Leader Covets a Nuclear Energy Program."
[18] Rohter and Forero, "Venezuela's Leader Covets a Nuclear Energy Program."
[19] "Bush Open to Venezuela Nuclear Reactor," CBS News, Washington, November 2, 2005, www.cbsnews.com. See, Trinkunas, "Assessing Potential Nuclear Proliferation Networks in Latin America: 2006-2016," p. 622.
[20] Rohter and Forero, "Venezuela's Leader Covets a Nuclear Energy Program."
[21] Wade Boese, "U.S. Bars Future Arms Sales to Venezuela," Arms Control Today, www.armscontrol.org; Mark P. Sullivan, "Latin America: Terrorism Issues," CRS Report for Congress, Updated August 27, 2008, p. 3.
[22] "Brazil Daily Assesses Nuclear Agreement with Argentina, Venezuela."
[23] Daphne Morrison, "Brazil's Nuclear Ambitions, Past and Present," NTI Issue Brief, September 2006, www.nti.org.
[24] Rohter and Forero, "Venezuela's Leader Covets a Nuclear Energy Program."
[25] Patrick Markey, "Venezuela's Nuclear Energy Plan Makes US Wary," RedOrbit News, Oct. 21, 2005, www.redorbit.com.
[26] "Venezuela Seeks Nuclear Reactor from Argentina," WMD Insights, December 2005/Jan 2006, www.wmdinsights.com; Gerami, Squassoni, "Venezuela: A Nuclear Profile."
[27] Developed by Argnetina's Atomic Energy Commission and INVAP, the CAREM nuclear reactor "is a modular 100 MWt/27 MWe simplified pressurized water reactor with integral steam generators designed to be used for electricity generation (27 MWe or up to 100 MWe) or as a research reactor or for water desalination. Recent studies have explored scaling it up to 300 MWe....Fuel is standard 3.4% enriched PWR fuel, with burnable poison, and it is refueled annually." ("Nuclear Power in Argentina," World Nuclear Organization web site, www.world-nuclear.org; see also "CAREM Project," INVAP web site, www.invap.net, both accessed May 4, 2009.)
[28] Trinkunas, "Assessing Potential Nuclear Proliferation Networks in Latin America: 2006-2016"; "Venezuela Seeks Nuclear Reactor from Argentina."
[29] Rohter and Forero, "Venezuela's Leader Covets a Nuclear Energy Program."
[30] Comision Nacional de Energia Atomica (CNEA), Republica Argentina, "CNEA Impulsa Integracion Energetica Entre Paises Latinoamericanos y el Caribe," April 20, 2007, CNEA, www.cnea.gov.ar. (accessed April 9, 2009).
[31] Andy Webb-Vidal, "Oiling the Axis — Ties Between Iran and Venezuela," Jane's Intelligence Review, August 1, 2007.
[32] Alberto Garrido, "Venezuela: Analyst Examines Iran-Venezuela Links in Energy, Military Areas," El Universal, April 24, 2006, OSC document LAP20060424062008.
[33] Alex Holland, "Venezuela Iran's Best Friend?" Venezuelanalysis.com, March 11, 2006; Webb-Vidal, "Oiling the Axis — Ties Between Iran and Venezuela."
[34] Garrido, "Venezuela: Analyst Examines Iran-Venezuela Links in Energy, Military Areas."
[35] "Analysis: Venezuelan, Iranian Leaders Reinforce Ties," July 26, 2006, OSC document FEA20060727025689; Simon Romero, "Venezuela Strengthens Its Relationships in the Middle East," The New York Times, August 21, 2006; "Venezuela, Iran Sign 20 New Bilateral Cooperation Agreements," Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias, March 7, 2007; "Friends of Opportunity," The Economist, November 27, 2008.
[36] Elaine Sciolino, "World Nuclear Panel to Refer Iran to U.N. Security Council," The New York Times, February 4, 2006.
[37] Analysis: Venezuelan, Iranian Leaders Reinforce Ties"; Romero, "Venezuela Strengthens Its Relationships in the Middle East," The New York Times, August 21, 2006; Webb-Vidal, "Oiling the Axis — Ties Between Iran and Venezuela."
[38] "Chavez and Tehran," The Washington Times, April 4, 2006.
[39] Kelly Hearn, "Washington's Searching for a Smoking Gun on Chavez," World Politics Review, October 3, 2006, www.worldpoliticsreview.com; Webb-Vidal, "Oiling the Axis — Ties Between Iran and Venezuela."
[40] Webb-Vidal, "Oiling the Axis — Ties Between Iran and Venezuela."
[41] "Venezuela to Build Unmanned Aircraft with Iran," Globovision Television, January 29, 2007, OSC document FEA20070130085434.
[42] "Venezuela, Iran Sign 20 New Bilateral Cooperation Agreements," Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias, March 7, 2007; "Venezuela: Chávez Tour Ends with Petrochemical Plant Launching," Caracas Ministry of Communications and Information, July 2, 2007, OSC document LAP20070703052002; "Chávez Stresses Growing Ties with Russia, Iran," OSC report, July 17, 2007, OSC document FEA20070718234867.
[43] Webb-Vidal, "Oiling the Axis — Ties Between Iran and Venezuela."
[44] "Friends of Opportunity," The Economist, November 27, 2008.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Mark P. Sullivan, "Latin America: Terrorism Issues," CRS Report for Congress, Updated August 27, 2008.
[47] "H. Res. 1049: Calling for the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to Be Designated a State Sponsor of Terrorism," Introduced March 13, 2008, www.govtrack.us.
[48] "Resolution & Reality: H.Res. 1049," Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in the United States of America," www.embavenez-us.org, accessed December 4, 2008.
[49] Ibid.
[50] Department of State, "Bureau of Verification, Compliance and Implementation: Imposition of Measures Against Foreign Persons, Including a Ban on U.S. Government Procurement," Federal Register, Vol. 73, No. 206, pp. 63226-63227, http://edocket.access.gpo.gov. In addition to CAVIM, the State Department sanctioned the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, three Chinese companies, Russia's Rosoboronexport, two North Korean companies, one South Korean company, two companies in Sudan, and one in the United Arab Emirates.
[51] "Export Development Bank of Iran Designated as a Proliferator," Press Room of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, October 22, 2008, www.treas.gov. Executive Order 13382, aims to freeze the assets of WMD proliferators and their supporters, and to isolate them from the U.S. financial and commercial systems.
[52] "Venezuela Aids Iranian Missile Sales to Syria, Intelligence Agencies Say," Global Security Newswire, December 22, 2008; "Iran Using Venezuela to Duck UN Sanctions: Report," AFP, December 22, 2008.
[53] "Venezuela: Chávez Notes 'Great Optimism' about US-Latin America Rapprochement," Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias, April 18, 2009, OSC document LAP20090418062001; "Venezuelan, Chilean Presidents Anticipate 'New Era' After Unasur-Obama Encounter," Caracas People's Power Ministry for Communication and Information," April 18, 2009, OSC document LAP20090418062007.
[54] "Belarus Ready to Develop Comprehensive Relations with Venezuela," Official Internet Portal of the President of the Republic of Belarus, July 25, 2006, www.president.gov.by (accessed April 9, 2009).
[55] "Chávez Highlights Cooperation with Russia, Belarus, Iran," Venezolana de Television, July 3, 2007, OSC doc FEA20070704217026.
[56] "Chavez Stresses Growing Ties with Russia, Iran," OSC Report, July 17, 2007, OSC document FEA20070718234867.
[57] Moises Naim, "Spanish Commentary Says Latin America Forging Alliances with Russia, China, Iran," El Pais.com, November 23, 2008, OSC document EUP20081209178001.
[58] Ibid.
[59] Associated Press, "Venezuela, France Eye Nuclear Energy Cooperation," International Herald Tribune, October 2, 2008, www.iht.com.
[60] Ibid., Tamara Pearson, "France Solicits Venezuela's Help in Negotiations with Iran,' Venezuelanalysis.com, October 5, 2008.
[61] "Ahmadinejad Envisions Greater Iran-Venezuela Cooperation," Tehran Times, October 6, 2008, www.tehrantimes.com.
[62] "Russian-Venezuelan Nuclear Cooperation Should Not Raise Global Concerns," Interfax, November 27, 2008, OSC document CEP20081127950042.
[63] Vladimir Voronin, "Venezuela's Weapons Acquisition from Russia Analyzed," Novoye Vremya, July 2, 2007, OSC document CEP20070709358002.
[64] Ibid.; Anastasia Moloney, "Concern Over Venezuela's Russian Arms Purchases Could Be Misplaced," World Politics Review, October 29, 2008, www.worldpoliticsreview.com; "Putin, Chávez Discuss Nuclear, Military Cooperation," Novosti, September 26, 2008, http://en.rian.ru; "Chávez Stresses Growing Ties with Russia, Iran."
[65] Voronin, "Venezuela's Weapons Acquisition from Russia Analyzed."
[66] "Russia Will Sell Weapons to Iran, Venezuela No Matter What — Defense Minister," Interfax, September 25, 2006, OSC document CEP20060925950274; Tony Halpin and Alexi Mostrous, "Russia Ratchets Up US Tensions with Arms Sales to Iran and Venezuela," Times Online, September 19, 2008.
[67] "Putin, Chávez Discuss Nuclear, Military Cooperation," Novosti, September 26, 2008, http://en.rian.ru; "Russia Makes Multipolar Moves on Latin America," Jane's Intelligence Digest, October 20, 2008; Mikhail Zygar, et al., "Hugo Chávez' Rating Soared a Billion," Kommersant, September 27, 2008; "Russia, Venezuela May Sign Infantry Vehicle Deal Within Month," RIA Novosti, October 15, 2008; Halpin and Mostrous, "Russia Ratchets Up US Tensions with Arms Sales to Iran and Venezuela."
[68] Aleksandr Artemyev, "Russia-Venezuela Nuclear Cooperation Proposed," Gazeta.ru, September 29, 2008, OSC Doc CEP20080929337002; At the beginning of September 2008, Russian fighter jets made their first flight to Latin America since the end of the Cold War to participate in training exercises in Venezuela.
[69] Anna Arutunyan, "Latin America's Rising Star," Moscow News, October 3, 2008, www.mnweekly.ru; "Russia Offers Venezuela Nuclear Energy Cooperation," Vesti TV, September 25, 2008, OSC document CEP20080925950482.
[70] Artemyev, "Russia-Venezuela Nuclear Cooperation Proposed."
[71] Brian Ellsworth and Ana Isabel Martinez, "Venezuela Set to Develop Nuclear Power," Reuters, September 28, 2008; Alastair Gee, "How Russia is Trying to Regain Influence in Latin America," U.S. News and World Report, October 14, 2008; "FYI — Venezuela, Russia to Promote Nuclear Energy for Peaceful Purposes," Venezolana de Television, November 15, 2008, OSC document LAP20081118023001; "Venezuela to Build Nuclear Plant in Zulia," ITAR-TASS, November 17, 2008, OSC document FEA20081117794901; "Chavez, Putin in Nuke Deal," The Canberra Times, September 30, 2008; Humberto Marquez, "Venezuela-Russia: Business Deals Consolidate Alliance," Inter Press Service News Agency, November 13, 2008, www.ipsnews.net.
[72] Frank Jack Daniel, "Chavez Nuclear Plan Helps Domestic, Foreign Goals," Reuters, October 8, 2008. In September 2008, Chavez expelled the U.S. ambassador in Venezuela and accused the United States of inciting a coup attempt against him.
[73] "Russian Foreign Minister on Russian Relations with Latin America, Caribbean," Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 17, 2008, OSC document CEP20081117950292.
[74] Ibid.
[75] "Putin, Chávez Discuss Nuclear, Military Cooperation," Novosti, September 26, 2008, http://en.rian.ru.
[76] "Venezuela, Russia Sign 15 Cooperation Agreements," OSC Feature, November 8, 2008, OSC document FEA20081112793917. See also, "Chavez Boasts Nuclear Cooperation with Russia," Tehran Times, November 11, 2008, www.tehrantimes.com. Chávez also suggested that the United States feared Russia would set up secret atomic bomb sites in Venezuela. (Bill Rodgers, "Medvedev to Visit Venezuela," Voice of America, November 14, 2008.)
[77] "Russian State Corporation Gives Details of Nuclear Deal with Venezuela," Interfax, November 27, 2008, OSC document CEP20081127950373. See also, Caracas Ministry of Communications and Information, "Venezuela, Russia Ink Seven Cooperation Agreements," November 27, 2008, OSC document LAP20081128071003.
[78] "Russian State Corporation Gives Details of Nuclear Deal with Venezuela."
[79] Artur Blinov, "Russia's Nuclear Cooperation with Iran, Venezuela, Examined," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 28, 2008, OSC document CEP20081128025005.
[80] "Russia to Assist Venezuela in Building Nuclear Power Plant, Uranium Exploration," Vesti TV, November 27, 2008, OSC document CEP20081127950051.
[81] "Russia, Venezuela to Exercise in the Caribbean Sea — Kommersant Moscow," Kommersant.com, December 1, 2008, OSC document CEP20081201950151.
[82] "Russian President Sums up Venezuela Visit, Emphasizes Importance of Cooperation," Russian presidential web site, November 27, 2008, OSC document CEP20081127950382.
[83] Will Grant, "BBC Analysis Sees Political Element in Closer Russia-Venezuela Ties," BBC News Online, Nov 25, 2008, OSC document EUP20081126167010.
[84] Ibid.
[85] Konstantin Bogdanov, "Russia to Build Nuclear Power Plant in Venezuela," RIA Novosti, November 19, 2008, http://en.rian.ru.
[86] Ibid.; "BBC Monitoring: Russian Media Disagree in Assessment of Venezuela Visit," BBC Monitoring, November 28, 2008, OSC document CEP20081128950343.
[87] Ibid.
[88]89 Cesar J. Alvarez, "Venezuela's Oil-Based Economy," Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder, February 9, 2009, www.cfr.org.
[89] Trinkunas, "Assessing Potential Nuclear Proliferation Networks in Latin America: 2006-2016," p. 624.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

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Sarah Diehl provides an assessment of Venezuela's nuclear aspirations under the Hugo Chavez regime.

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