The late 1980s and early 1990s were a banner era for nuclear nonproliferation: As Cold War tensions eased, the US and USSR (and later Russia) agreed to massive reductions in their nuclear arsenals. Two regional powers in South America—Brazil and Argentina—also made significant progress in the realm of nonproliferation during that hopeful time.

The Embalse nuclear power station is one of three commercial plants in Argentina. Along with producing power, it also makes the cobalt-60 radioisotope, which is used in medicine. (Courtesy of Casa Rosada/CC BY-SA 2.0.)

The Embalse nuclear power station is one of three commercial plants in Argentina. Along with producing power, it also makes the cobalt-60 radioisotope, which is used in medicine. (Courtesy of Casa Rosada/CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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The two neighbors were designing an elegant solution to the vexing problem of nuclear weapons proliferation: the Brazilian–Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials. Known as ABACC, its initials in Spanish and Portuguese, it remains the world’s only bilateral nuclear safeguards agency. What makes the agreement even more remarkable is the neighbors’ historic role as “rivals rather than mortal enemies” amid centuries of competition for prestige and regional dominance.1 

This article traces the historical trajectory of ABACC, explains its functions as a technical organization in monitoring nonproliferation compliance between two advanced South American nuclear energy programs, highlights its importance as a model 30 years after its creation, and outlines its implications for future diplomacy to eradicate nuclear weapons across the globe.

Brazil entered the nuclear age exactly one month before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on 6 August 1945, when officials agreed to supply the US with monazite sands through a secret agreement signed in Chapultepec, Mexico.2 Abundant in the Brazilian coastal states of Rio de Janeiro, Espirito Santo, and Bahia, those sands contained thorium minerals needed by the Manhattan Project3 for a reaction that transformed thorium-232 into fissile uranium-233.

In Argentina, Brazil’s chief competitor for continental and regional prestige, political and military leaders were startled into action by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They quickly signed a decree in late September 1945 prohibiting the export of uranium, with the justification that “these minerals will be used within a comparatively short time in the process of obtaining power applicable to industrial uses.”4 

Both countries made it clear that they aimed to keep abreast of global developments in the field of nuclear energy. In southeast Brazil, scientific institutions fostering atomic research grew near major population centers in the decade after World War II. They often developed from or alongside existing universities that provided advanced training in physics and engineering. In Argentina, the remote Andean town of Bariloche grew from a sleepy hamlet in 1945 into a national scientific and technological center by 1962 in large part from an ambitious and ill-fated gamble on a nuclear energy program based on the fusion of small atoms.

By the mid to late 1960s, South America’s two premier powers in nuclear research began to shift some of the energy they had previously poured into nuclear infrastructure and human capital into the diplomatic realm. They adroitly forged an alliance at the negotiating table that paved the way for the signing of the Treaty of Tlatelolco in 1967, which prohibited signatories from Latin American and Caribbean nations from developing or hosting nuclear weapons. It was the world’s first treaty establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone.

Despite that success, relations between the neighbors began to sour shortly after the treaty’s signing. The cause was an acrimonious dispute over large-scale hydroelectric dams—Brazil’s Itaipu Dam and Argentina’s Corpus Dam—that were planned to be constructed on the Paraná River. For that reason, neither country ended up ratifying the treaty. The Tripartite Agreement between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay brought the hydroelectric dam conflict to a peaceful conclusion in 1979.

In the following year, the first major bilateral cooperation agreement between Latin America’s most advanced nuclear energy programs marked a key diplomatic breakthrough, yet neither country made any promises to renounce a potential path toward nuclear weapons. In fact, authoritarian military governments in Brazil and Argentina significantly accelerated the development of their technologically advanced nuclear programs in the 1970s and early 1980s. That led to widespread concern among nuclear nonproliferation advocates and experts—particularly in the US—that one or both South American neighbors might join the small club of nuclear weapons states.

As early as 1974, however, Argentine and Brazilian nuclear energy officials, engineers, and diplomats began to take cautious yet recognizable steps toward increasing technical cooperation, particularly in nuclear power development. The landmark nuclear cooperation agreement reached in 1980 by military presidents Jorge Rafael Videla of Argentina and João Figueiredo of Brazil, for example, led to informal bilateral meetings of technical experts.

Those efforts were boosted when electoral democracy returned to Argentina under President Raúl Alfonsín in 1983 (see figure 1) and to Brazil under President José Sarney in 1985 (see figure 2). The neighboring leaders had a warm relationship that fostered more expansive cooperation on nuclear energy technologies, which they formalized with a 1985 bilateral declaration committing both countries to the exclusively peaceful use of such technologies. Cross-border technical cooperation culminated with the founding of ABACC in 1991, which created the level of mutual confidence and trust needed for the South American neighbors to firmly establish themselves as non-nuclear-weapons states. The two former rivals finally ratified the Treaty of Tlatelolco in 1994 and entered the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty later in the decade.

Figure 1.

Raúl Alfonsín being inaugurated as president of Argentina on 10 December 1983. (Courtesy of the Presidency of the Nation of Argentina/CC BY 2.0.)

Figure 1.

Raúl Alfonsín being inaugurated as president of Argentina on 10 December 1983. (Courtesy of the Presidency of the Nation of Argentina/CC BY 2.0.)

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Figure 2.

José Sarney taking the oath of office as vice president and acting president of Brazil on 15 March 1985. Sarney’s running mate, Tancredo Neves, fell ill the day before the inauguration and died on 21 April, which led Sarney to assume the presidency. (Courtesy of the Federal Senate of Brazil/public domain.)

Figure 2.

José Sarney taking the oath of office as vice president and acting president of Brazil on 15 March 1985. Sarney’s running mate, Tancredo Neves, fell ill the day before the inauguration and died on 21 April, which led Sarney to assume the presidency. (Courtesy of the Federal Senate of Brazil/public domain.)

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Today Argentina and Brazil are two of the six non-nuclear-weapons states in the world that possess uranium-enrichment capabilities. In addition to their five operational nuclear power plants, the two countries operate a remarkable 72 nuclear facilities, which include commercial and research reactors, facilities for conversion and fuel fabrication, storage facilities, and research institutions (see figure 3).

Figure 3.

A map of important nuclear sites in Brazil and Argentina. The two countries operate a total of 77 nuclear facilities, including five commercial power plants. All of them are subject to regular inspection by ABACC experts.

Figure 3.

A map of important nuclear sites in Brazil and Argentina. The two countries operate a total of 77 nuclear facilities, including five commercial power plants. All of them are subject to regular inspection by ABACC experts.

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In examining ABACC, the diplomatic–technical solution that ensured Argentina’s and Brazil’s peaceful intentions for their nuclear energy development, I hope to show not only the innovative qualities of the 1991 South American safeguards agreement but some potential ways to rebuild a more stable global nonproliferation infrastructure in 2022 and beyond.

The South American neighbors are triply bound to never develop nuclear weapons by a sort of nesting doll of nonproliferation commitments: ABACC, the Treaty of Tlatelolco, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. ABACC provided the trust necessary for Brazil and Argentina to accede to the two treaties, but it remains largely unknown even in those nations. According to its website, its objective is almost entirely technical: “to administer and apply the Common System of Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials, whose aim is to verify that the nuclear materials in all the nuclear activities of the two countries are not deviated towards nuclear weapons.”

But the unusual organization is undergirded by the mutual confidence built during the last third of the 20th century, which has enabled the two countries to provide transparency to their nuclear energy activities. Organized to assure Argentina, Brazil, and the international community that all nuclear facilities in the two countries are used for exclusively peaceful purposes, ABACC is run by a small and tightly knit bilateral group of technical professionals and diplomatic leaders. A four-member commission oversees all ABACC activities; it comprises two Argentine members (currently Gabriela Martinic of Argentina’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade, and Worship and Agustín Arbor González of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority) and their Brazilian counterparts (currently Marcelo Paz Saraiva Câmara of Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Paulo Roberto Pertusi of the National Nuclear Energy Commission).

The secretariat, ABACC’s operational arm as well as its organizational face, represents ABACC to Argentine and Brazilian national authorities. It is headed by one Argentine official and one Brazilian official, who are joined by five more representatives from each nation.5 A budget officer manages the organization’s financial resources.

Other bilateral pairs of officials are responsible for four related, but distinct, areas of ABACC activities: technical support (the calibration and maintenance of equipment for inspecting and safeguarding nuclear facilities), accounting and control of nuclear materials (the analysis of accounting data and transmission to national authorities and the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA), operations (planning and performing inspections in coordination with national authorities and the IAEA), and planning and evaluation (annual planning of inspections and design of procedures used at each facility). An institutional relations officer coordinates institutional actions with political authorities in both countries, supports the secretariat in conducting nonproliferation and safeguards activities, prepares annual reports and promotional materials, and maintains ABACC’s website.

Only 10 additional ABACC officials work with the secretariat and commission to coordinate, analyze, and carry out inspections upholding nuclear accounting and control policies at 51 nuclear sites in Argentina and 26 in Brazil, which include uranium and fuel-fabrication installations, enrichment facilities, commercial power reactors, research or subcritical reactors, R&D institutions, and storage facilities. Because Argentina and Brazil neither possess any nuclear weapons nor desire to develop them, the inspection infrastructure in the two countries might seem like a mere afterthought to a US audience. Political authorities and ABACC officials, however, take their mission extremely seriously. In 2020, for example, 889 inspector-days were devoted to upholding the terms of the common system.

That year, ABACC experts performed 114 inspections of Argentine and Brazilian nuclear installations and made an additional 70 site visits to verify detailed technical information about the design of certain facilities. Inspectors also made 650 nondestructive measurements, performed 177 weighing tests, and collected 34 samples of nuclear material to test for the presence of the fissile uranium-235 isotope.6 ABACC’s comprehensive inspection plan covers all nuclear facilities in the two countries but focuses particularly on each one’s most potentially problematic installations for nuclear proliferation: Brazil’s centrifuge-enrichment facilities and Argentina’s natural uranium-power reactors and its fuel conversion and fabrication plants.

In December 2014 I had an extraordinary opportunity to speak at length with ABACC’s then-directors of planning and evaluation, Orpet Peixoto of Brazil and Sonia Fernández Moreno of Argentina (who is currently serving another term in that position), at the organization’s headquarters in Rio de Janeiro. The two directors were remarkably candid and described details about ABACC’s operations and goals that go far beyond what can be gleaned from an annual report or website. As they noted, inspectors work their regular jobs at nuclear facilities across Argentina and Brazil but are recommended by each nation’s nuclear commission to serve in ABACC duties. Argentine engineers and technical experts inspect Brazilian facilities and vice versa.

Fernández explained to me that ABACC calls on experts in the fuel-cycle and engineering processes and on nuclear safeguards specialists. In contrast to the IAEA, whose inspectors examine facilities and technologies that they may not know in detail, ABACC inspector teams know well the technical specifics of any facility they visit. Peixoto noted that ABACC’s inspectors are not the organization’s employees but rather serve as ABACC secretariat staff during safeguards missions. An intensive inspection training program thus has an important secondary function: It transforms nuclear technicians into inspectors who are united toward a dynamic mission—keeping up with the changing details of safeguards and updated inspection practices.

By providing up-to-date training and equipment, ABACC keeps itself relevant and ahead of changes in the details of nuclear safeguards and accountancy. For example, in 2019 each country held a one-week training course on the ABACC–IAEA Joint Auditing System for Accounting Records and a four-day course on containment and surveillance systems. In that same year, the southeastern Brazilian city of Resende hosted a three-day workshop on inspection procedures in fabrication plants. (Resende, approximately 160 kilometers northwest of Rio de Janeiro, is an important center of nuclear activities in Brazil and hosts a nuclear fuel fabrication facility, a uranium conversion plant, and Brazil’s uranium enrichment plant.)

Maintaining and replacing highly specific technical equipment across a vast geographic space is another challenge that ABACC’s planners and experts face. Its 2019 annual report highlighted the Next Generation Surveillance System equipment installed at Argentina’s Atucha I and II nuclear power plants and the successful installation of remote verification equipment for the surveillance systems of Atucha II and Brazil’s Angra 2 plants (see figure 4).

Figure 4.

The Angra nuclear power station, located in the southern part of the state of Rio de Janeiro. The only commercial facility in Brazil, it consists of two pressurized water reactors; a third is under construction. (Courtesy of FURNAS Centrais Electricas/IAEA Imagebank/CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Figure 4.

The Angra nuclear power station, located in the southern part of the state of Rio de Janeiro. The only commercial facility in Brazil, it consists of two pressurized water reactors; a third is under construction. (Courtesy of FURNAS Centrais Electricas/IAEA Imagebank/CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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ABACC’s budget—shared equally by Argentina and Brazil—is approximately $5 million annually.7 That budget does not allow for ABACC to operate its own laboratories, so inspectors instead use existing facilities in the two countries. Samples from Brazil might be analyzed in Argentina or vice versa. Peixoto noted that a key mission of ABACC is to “strengthen the capacity” of the labs in both member countries when possible.

In addition to financial exigencies, the lab-sharing arrangement has its roots in the nuclear cooperation between Argentina and Brazil that started in the 1980s. Prior to that time, each country had been responsible for its own safeguards; in the middle of that decade, a technical working group was created. It met every month, alternating its gatherings between the two countries, to hash out a common system of accountancy and control, or “a sort of mini-IAEA.” The group combined expertise and knowledge of technical details at the national level into a unified bilateral system based on trust and cooperation.

At several points in our conversation, Fernández and Peixoto seemed to believe it was easier to describe ABACC as what it isn’t—neither a nuclear police organization, nor an organization like the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) that doesn’t answer to national nuclear authorities, nor a nuclear-weapons-free-zone treaty—than what it is: A rigorous bilateral inspection organization built on mutual confidence and technical cooperation that provides a unified voice for Brazil and Argentina to the IAEA on matters regarding nuclear safeguards.

ABACC leaders are aware of both the organization’s uniqueness and its creation as a solution to specific problems in and between Brazil and Argentina. They have, however, been exploring parts of the world where they think an ABACC-like model might eventually succeed or where they can provide advice about a verification and safeguards solution. Peixoto and Fernández both envisioned a near future—perhaps 30 years from now—where the IAEA would have “too much to do” to inspect a growing number of nuclear installations to ensure peaceful use in the world’s declared non-nuclear-weapons states.

The global community has “a lot to learn from ABACC,” said Peixoto proudly. But he also admitted that it would be challenging to develop a bilateral or regional safeguards and verification model among countries whose mutual-confidence level or nuclear weapons status differs from that of Brazil and Argentina. Yet Peixoto believed that parts of the ABACC system could work even in the notoriously unstable Middle East, where Israel is the sole nuclear weapons power. Fernández, on the other hand, was less sanguine about the prospects of an ABACC model taking hold outside of its South American home countries. In Brazil and Argentina, she explained, mutual confidence was first built between the neighboring countries’ nuclear engineers and technicians. In a process that remains geographically and historically unique, that trust then trickled upward to national political leaders.

Peixoto added to Fernández’s concerns about the potential for extending the ABACC model to other parts of the world, but along technical lines rather than those of mutual confidence in political relations. In the mid 1980s, a working committee began to oversee the work of technical groups in creating two compatible nuclear systems in Argentina and Brazil. Only then was it possible to make the political decision to create ABACC, which is a separate international agency independent of Brazilian and Argentine political leadership.

Furthermore, both directors agreed that many nations are much more comfortable with the idea of joining a nuclear-weapons-free zone than a rigorous inspectorate, an argument that is borne out in practice: ABACC has two members, but 114 countries are members of nuclear-weapons-free zones in Latin America, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Africa. The road to exporting ABACC to other parts of the world will not be easy. As Peixoto and Fernández described it, three challenging conditions were necessary to found ABACC: technical alignment, mutual political and military confidence building, and the two nations’ willingness to submit to the stricter requirements of an inspection agency. So will ABACC remain one of a kind?

The outlook may not be quite so bleak. ABACC has technical cooperation agreements with the European Union, the US, South Korea, and the IAEA. Among those partnerships, collaborations with the IAEA and the US Department of Energy are the most frequent and best documented in ABACC’s annual reports. In the 2019 report, for example, the organization highlighted its participation in the IAEA’s destructive analysis intercomparison exercises, a partnership with the IAEA in developing a new laser-system technology for dry storage of fuel elements at Argentina’s first nuclear power plant, and continued efforts to implement a new method to sample uranium hexafluoride. DOE, on the other hand, has sent nuclear material samples to be tested by South American inspectors and assisted ABACC in updating the nondestructive measurement systems at Brazil’s two uranium-enrichment facilities.

Even more intriguing is the potential of exporting the ABACC model to a different context, such as the Korea Peninsula, which is famously divided between the authoritarian, nuclear-armed North and the prosperous but non-nuclear-armed South. ABACC secured a technical cooperation agreement with the South’s Korea Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation and Control (KINAC) in 2006. Although the agreement is nominally limited to “nuclear material accounting and control,” it also includes generic provisions, such as the “exchange of scientific and technical information” and short visits by scientists, engineers, and other staff to safeguarded nuclear facilities. More specific components of safeguards R&D, including technology for sample analysis and measurement, are also part of the agreement. Fifteen years after its inception, the ABACC–KINAC agreement is still in force. It continues to be automatically renewed every two years.

In contrast to the more nebulous terms of the KINAC arrangement, the 1999 agreement between ABACC and Euratom (the European Union’s 27 member nations plus the UK and Switzerland) specifies safeguards approaches for such facilities as enrichment plants, commercial reactors such as Argentina’s Embalse power plant, and fabrication facilities and areas of cooperation in “containment and surveillance technology for nuclear material,” “nuclear safeguards training courses,” and “procurement, characterization and use of standards [for] nuclear material.”

In 2022 any potential ABACC-type bilateral or regional agreements seem far away. In the Middle East, a hard-right nationalist bloc continues to hold significant influence in nuclear-armed Israel. Meanwhile its rival Iran is no longer constrained in its nuclear ambitions by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was unilaterally scrapped by the Trump administration in 2018 despite Iranian compliance with the agreement. On the Korea Peninsula, although South Korea seems willing and able to engage in technical cooperation agreements with innovative partners such as ABACC, nuclear-armed North Korea shows no inclination toward joining any kind of similar agreement with the rival South.

In both of those hot spots, there is a nuclear imbalance: One state in a conflictive relationship possesses nuclear weapons but the other does not. For that reason, an ABACC-type model does not seem likely to be successful in those cases. Somewhat counterintuitively, however, one wonders whether an ABACC model might work between two nuclear-armed rivals, such as India and Pakistan. Progress has certainly been made toward one of the three conditions Peixoto and Fernández cited as necessary for ABACC’s founding—namely, mutual confidence building: the two South Asian powers have now coexisted as nuclear-armed neighbors for almost 25 years, which in itself requires a great deal of mutual confidence building. Nevertheless, tensions remain high, and, clearly, more must be done in that area.

Additionally, it seems plausible that Pakistan and India might be able to establish technical cooperation on nuclear safeguards. Developing the mutual will to enter a rigorous system and calendar of inspections appears to be the biggest challenge that must be overcome to establish an ABACC-like solution in South Asia. In general, ABACC represents a promising nonproliferation model that can be adapted to other parts of the world either in lieu of or in collaboration with increasingly overworked IAEA inspectors. But the geopolitical context and regional dynamics in the most prominent potential nuclear hot spots across the world currently seem unfavorable to such a solution.

Of course, at the height of the dispute over hydroelectric energy plans in the 1970s, politicians, diplomats, and nuclear experts in Argentina and Brazil would have agreed that the prospects of realizing an institution like ABACC were illusory at best. ABACC’s transformation over the past 30 years from a fragile collaboration between two presidents and national nuclear commissions into a durable organization with a $5 million annual budget has been remarkable (see figure 5). One can only hope that in the next 30 years its model will inspire leaders far from South American shores to further nonproliferation efforts.

Figure 5.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, delivering the opening remarks at a July 2021 conference in Rio de Janeiro commemorating the 30th anniversary of ABACC’s founding. (Courtesy of Dean Calma/IAEA/CC BY 2.0.)

Figure 5.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, delivering the opening remarks at a July 2021 conference in Rio de Janeiro commemorating the 30th anniversary of ABACC’s founding. (Courtesy of Dean Calma/IAEA/CC BY 2.0.)

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Christopher Dunlap is a historian of Latin America. His research focuses on the political, diplomatic, and technological history of Argentina’s and Brazil’s nuclear energy programs. He is based in California.