Brazil Bans the Bomb

October 13, 1990

It takes courage to do what Francisco Collor de Mello has done. He is the young playboy governor who won the presidential election in Brazil last December on a promise to free the market and keep out his leftist-unionist opponent. As the second civilian and first freely elected president after a long period of military dictatorship, he was bound to find skeletons. He found nuclear ones, specifically a 15-year-old military program to develop nuclear weapons outside of domestic or international surveillance. It was close to success.

Mr. Collor did not go along. He did not fear to ruffle military feathers. He told the brass the project was canceled. He installed an anti-weapons scientist, Jose Goldemberg, as secretary of science and technology to dismantle the effort. He took the top generals and photographers to a remote underground testing hole and filled it with concrete. Then he went to the United Nations General Assembly in New York and said, "Brazil today rejects the idea of any test that implies nuclear explosions, even for peaceful ends." Like most U.N. speeches, that was for home consumption.

Nuclear proliferation is one of the gravest dangers facing the world today. Quite a few nations are where Brazil was, within a year or two of exploding The Bomb. Brazil is a major weapons manufacturer and exporter. Its generals and Argentina's maintained a weapons race, which is what Brazil's secret uranium enrichment was about. Brazil is on the verge of being a major power -- it has the geography and population -- and the nuclear ambition followed naturally.

Iraq is the near-nuclear nation that scares the world most because of its ruler's power obsession. But India, which has exploded a nuclear device, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa and Argentina among other countries would do just as much harm if they loosed nuclear weapons in anger.

Mr. Collor's action took courage, given the vested interests in a 15-year-old major weapons program. He knows, if the generals do not, that too great a military spending program weakens rather than strengthens a developing economy. He knows that Japan and Germany are strong because they are not in the arms race. But that's a tough sell in some circles.

Certainly Mr. Collor has earned points when debt is discussed. ++ The world is in his debt. So are his Brazilian compatriots. He has set a model for the entire near-nuclear world, which unhappily is a lot of countries.

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