Hugo Chavez has been busy as of late. On yet another tour of the world, the Venezuelan leader has been racking up the air miles, stopping by to see his anti-American friends across the globe. The latest stop on his ten-day tour of Europe and the Middle East is Iran, where he was received warmly by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad, who welcomed his “progressive and fraternal” ally against “the bullying powers.” The two are keen to discuss energy issues, and that is logical. Both Venezuela and Iran are exporters of petroleum. But they have something new to discuss, as well: Venezuela has now joined Iran in seeking nuclear power for “peaceful” purposes. And they have some high-powered help lined up to get the job done: Russia has pledged its support for the construction of Venezuelan nuclear reactors.
Russia has extended this hand to Chavez in full knowledge that the United States will view such nuclear development with concern. “A deal in the atomic sphere has just been signed. I already know that it will make someone shudder. [Chavez] told me that there will be states who will have different types of emotions about this,” Russian President Dmitri Medvedev told reporters. He also stressed that the development is non-military and entirely peaceful, nothing that should alarm any of Venezuela’s neighbors in the Western hemisphere. This is, of course, the same sort of justification that has allowed Iran to press on towards a nuclear program even while threatening Israel with destruction. Chavez has clearly studied Ahmadinejad’s playbook, and knows full well that no one will stop him from building a nuclear industry, if he so chooses.
This announcement does not come as a total shock. Venezuela and Russia first announced their intention to cooperate on military matters in 2008, in the aftermath of Russia’s successful ground war against Washington-ally Georgia. Russia was furious over the West’s firm diplomatic support of Georgia, and responded by taking a series of actions designed to provoke Washington. It deployed warships to the Caribbean, including a stop over in Venezuela, where the Russian and Venezuelan fleets engaged in war games. Moscow further announced its intention to assist Venezuela in the Latin American country’s nuclear ambitions. This announcement is the ultimate result of that earlier agreement.
An evaluation of the military ramifications of this announcement is difficult to make. The two governments have obviously not revealed the technical details of the proposed plant, and since it has not yet been built, no Western intelligence agency has been able to probe its secrets. What is known is that the plan calls for the construction of a single plant and three separate reactors within in. Two of the reactors will be used to generate electricity, and the third will be a small research reactor.
The smallest reactor is of no particular concern, and would be used to generate particles and isotopes for scientific examination. Such reactors can also be used to produce mildly radioactive particles necessary for many medical diagnoses and cancer treatments, a commodity much in demand globally. (A recent shutdown of a similar reactor in Canada for critical maintenance disrupted medical scans and cancer treatments across the world; so finely balanced is the supply and demand for such products.) If Russia wants to build such a reactor halfway across the world, they’re certainly welcome to. It will be useful.
The nature and purpose of the other two reactors, however, is open to debate. According to The New York Times, they will be pressurized water reactors, each putting out 1,200 megawatts of power — roughly enough to power two million homes in total. Pressurized water reactors come in a variety of forms, but are not purposely designed to produce fuel for nuclear weapons. They can produce the fuel necessary, but far less efficiently than the large-scale facilities designed specifically to take nuclear fuel and convert it into plutonium.
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