By Calvin Garner Staff Editor December 13, 2010

Venezuela’s national assembly recently ratified a measure that allows for civilian nuclear energy cooperation with Russia. The vote was part of an agreement made two years ago between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. The deal calls for Russia to provide Venezuela with technical support to develop two reactors for power generation and a third small-scale research reactor.

It might seem alarmist to equate a civilian nuclear program with the weakening of the non-proliferation regime, the threat of a nuclear arms race, or the further deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations. Unfortunately, history and the facts support such a conclusion.

A Venezuelan nuclear program is bad for global non-proliferation efforts. The civilian program is a necessary precondition for a weapons program and makes such a program possible. Venezuela’s close ties with Syria and Iran should cause observers to doubt just how seriously it will take its non-proliferation requirements under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Treaty of Tlatelolco, the 1967 treaty making all of Latin America a nuclear weapons-free zone. Assuming that Chávez has the best of intentions now, there is the possibility that in the future he will choose to pursue nuclear weapons as a way to blunt U.S. power, shore up domestic support by rallying his people behind a nuclear crusade, or assert Venezuela’s role in the Americas. It is worth noting that leaders rarely announce that they plan to use peaceful nuclear technology as a stepping stone to a weapons program. Given Venezuela’s rich oil, gas, and hydroelectric resources, the need for a nuclear power program seems questionable.

Considering Chávez’s willingness to stand with those who snub the global non-proliferation regime and his hostility towards the United States and western institutions, he must be considered a candidate to say one thing and do another on the nuclear issue. Playing cat-and-mouse with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has proven to be a good way to win international attention, exact concessions from the West, or raise fears in neighbors’ minds about the possibility that a country has nuclear weapons capabilities. Unfortunately, the IAEA has not come up with a good way to keep leaders from stonewalling or punish those who do so. Even if Chávez neither has nor develops the intention to pursue nuclear weapons, he will find it increasingly attractive to evade or complicate the IAEA inspection regime for other reasons. In so doing, he will provide yet another example of ways to exploit weaknesses in the global non-proliferation regime.

Mixed signals from a nuclear Venezuela would have troubling implications for keeping Latin America free of nuclear weapons. Brazil and Argentina would most likely seriously reconsider their earlier decisions to forgo nuclear weapons in the face of a Venezuela with ambiguous nuclear priorities. If either country concluded it could not trust Venezuela’s statements on its nuclear program, a South American nuclear arms race could quite likely happen. Proliferation on the continent may start in Caracas but it would almost certainly spread, ending the international success story of Latin America as a nuclear-weapons free zone.

Lastly, a nuclear deal between Russia and Venezuela will lock Russia into behavior and rhetoric that are inherently anti-American, jeopardizing the progress that has been made in U.S.-Russia relations since 2009. The history of this deal explains why this is the case. Russia offered Venezuela nuclear power in 2008, the absolute low-point in U.S.-Russia relations, when Russia was fighting a shooting war with Georgia, a U.S. partner that was supporting the NATO coalition in Afghanistan. The realization of the nuclear partnership will place Russia back into a position of confronting the West as it did two years ago when tensions were running high. Additionally, it will move Russia away from those nations that seek to prevent the spread of nuclear capabilities. In light of Russia’s large nuclear weapons stockpile, knowledge, and technology, this would be a costly development for global non-proliferation efforts.

As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Venezuela is within its rights to receive and operate civilian nuclear facilities. But observers who buy Chávez’s line that the program is intended for peaceful power generation may be naïve. Regardless, they miss an important point: the implications of the program are damaging, even if the intentions are sound.

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