Venezuela Nuclear Weapons
Speaking to the local press on 09 October 2006, Nicolas Maduro, then Venezuelan Foreign Minister [and later President], condemned North Korea's nuclear test, and condemns all nuclear tests for the "immense damage they cause to the planet." Noting that Venezuela maintains a "policy of principles" on nuclear energy, Maduro said Venezuela opposes the proliferation of nuclear weapons, is working in international fora to persuade nuclear powers to eliminate their stockpile progressively, and is supportive of nuclear-free zones, including one for the Americas. He stressed that Venezuela only supports the peaceful and humanitarian use of nuclear energy.
The US Justice Department announced September 17, 2010 that a scientist and his wife, who both previously worked as contractors at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, have been indicted on charges of communicating classified nuclear weapons data to a person they believed to be a Venezuelan government official and conspiring to participate in the development of an atomic weapon for Venezuela, among other violations.
The defendants are Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni (Mascheroni), 75, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Argentina, and Marjorie Roxby Mascheroni (Roxby Mascheroni), 67, a U.S. citizen. Both were arrested by FBI agents this morning and made their initial appearance in federal court in Albuquerque today. If convicted of all the charges in the indictment, the defendants face a potential sentence of life in prison.
According to the indictment, Mascheroni had a series of conversations in March 2008 with an undercover FBI agent posing as a Venezuelan government official. During these conversations, Mascheroni discussed his program for developing nuclear weapons for Venezuela. Among other things, Mascheroni allegedly said he could help Venezuela develop a nuclear bomb within 10 years and that, under his program, Venezuela would use a secret, underground nuclear reactor to produce and enrich plutonium, and an open, above-ground reactor to produce nuclear energy.
In July 2008, the undercover agent provided Mascheroni with a list of 12 questions purportedly from Venezuelan military and scientific personnel. In response, Mascheroni delivered to the dead drop location in November 2008 a disk with a coded 132-page document on it that allegedly contained “Restricted Data” related to nuclear weapons. Written by Mascheroni and edited by his wife, the document was entitled “A Deterrence Program for Venezuela” and laid out Mascheroni’s nuclear weapons development program for Venezuela. Mascheroni stated that the information he was providing was worth millions of dollars, and his fee for producing the document was $793,000, the indictment alleges.
The indictment does not allege that the government of Venezuela or anyone acting on its behalf sought or was passed any classified information, nor does it charge any Venezuelan government officials or anyone acting on their behalf with wrongdoing. Further, the indictment does not charge any individuals currently working at LANL with wrongdoing.
Mascheroni, a Ph.D. physicist, worked as a scientist at LANL from 1979 to 1988 and held a security clearance that allowed him access to certain classified information, including “Restricted Data.” His wife worked at LANL between 1981 and 2010, where her duties included technical writing and editing. She also held a security clearance at LANL that allowed her access to certain classified information, including “Restricted Data.” As defined under the Atomic Energy Act, “Restricted Data” is classified information concerning the design, manufacture or use of atomic weapons; the production of special nuclear material; or the use of special nuclear material in the production of energy.
The indictment charges the defendants with conspiring to communicate and communicating “Restricted Data” to an individual with the intent to injure the United States and secure an advantage to a foreign nation. They are also charged with conspiring to and attempting to participate in the development of an atomic weapon, as well as conspiring to convey and conveying classified “Restricted Data.”
On his 22 May 2005 "Alo, Presidente" weekly television broadcast, President Chavez said that Venezuela was interested in developing a nuclear program "to diversify energy sources". He said that unlike the U.S., which possesses and has used nuclear weapons, a Venezuelan program would be for "development, life and peace." He stated that in addition to working with Latin American countries such as Brazil and Argentina, Venezuela would look to cooperate with Iran, adding that he was sure that Iran was "not making any atomic bomb, but was moving ahead on research in the nuclear area for scientific and technical advancement." Chavez's remarks received wide coverage both domestically and internationally, with Brazil in particular stressing that it would not participate in any nuclear research activities with Iran, a country that does not accept international safeguards.
After the initial round of controversy, comment ceased regarding the prospect of a "nuclear Venezuela" with the exception of a 05 June 2005 press release from the Venezuelan embassy in Brasilia, available on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, which denounced "the media war constructed from the headquarters of transnational hegemonic power, at whose head is President George W. Bush." The press release included a reminder that Venezuelan interest in nuclear matters long pre-dated the Chavez government, citing a nuclear energy accord signed between Venezuela and Brazil in 1983.
The Venezuelan Scientific Research Institute (IVIC), a state body, roughly equivalent, albeit on a much smaller scale, to the U.S. National Science Foundation and/or the Department of Energy's national laboratories, had purchased a small research reactor from General Electric during the 1950's and installed it in Los Teques on the outskirts of Caracas. This reactor, which had control systems which used vacuum tubes, as opposed to transistors, eventually was considered obsolete and difficult to operate, and was shut down in the mid-1980's. The IAEA had repeatedly expressed its concerns to the GOV before the reactor was brought down. No money was made available to upgrade or replace the research reactor. IVIC's only nuclear program is a small gamma ray emission facility for crystallography, sterilization of insects for biological research etc.
Venezuela's nuclear scientists, never large in number and mainly trained in the 1960's and 1970's, have all moved on to other countries, other fields of research, or other careers. Any nuclear program would require educating a whole new generation of physicists and engineers. A Ph.D requires five to seven years on top of an undergraduate degree. If the GOV started now, it would be a decade before it could create any kind of nuclear research capability. Before then, any facilities would have to be designed, built, supervised, and operated entirely by foreigners.
There had been an effort to determine whether Venezuela might have its own uranium deposits. Such deposits would be highly useful to any country which wanted to develop a nuclear program free from international safeguards which require the accounting of transfers of nuclear materials. Beginning in the mid-1960's the "Autonomous Corporation for Electrical Administration and Development" (CADAFE), the state-owned electrical generation and transmission enterprise, had sponsored basic uranium geology at the the Earth Sciences Institute of the Central University of Venezuela. Areas in Guayana, Cojedes, and the Andes were identified as having potential. Further research centered on the Andes, where rocks were found with 10-20 parts per million of uranium, versus a normal background amount of 4 parts per million. However, CADAFE lost interest, especially after it was decentralized into autonomous regional divisions, and core samples were never taken to determine whether or not a viable resource existed. Venezuela had the necessary geological talent on hand to re-start a uranium search, although the best way would be to begin again, using satellite mapping technology unavailable earlier.
The U.S. Geological Survey's 2008 Minerals Yearbook includes a reference to Venezuela uranium "deposits located in the jungle states of Amazonas and Bolivar, which supposedly contain about 50,000 tons of uranium reserves." In the states of Merida and Trujillo, there might be uranium deposits ranging between 60 parts per million (ppm) and 2,000 ppm, with 200 ppm being the minimum for an economically viable deposit.
International press reports citing an Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry document leaked 25 May 2008 alleged that Bolivia and Venezuela were supplying uranium to Iran. Although rumors that Venezuela is providing Iran with Venezuelan produced uranium may help burnish the government's revolutionary credentials, there seeme to be little basis in reality to the claims.
On Friday, 25 September 2009, Venezuelan Minister of Basic Industry and Mining, Rodolfo Sanz, claimed that Iran had helped carry out geophysical testing and aerial surveys to calculate the size of Venezuela's uranium deposits. He added that it would take three years to certify the size of the uranium reserves. A Venezuelan journalist reported on Sunday, September 27, that Chavez reprimanded Sanz about his comments on Iran, ordering him not to meddle in affairs he knew nothing about.
Venezuela did not have the physicists and engineers for a program to develop nuclear power or weapons. While countries with comparable levels of development such as India and Pakistan had done so, first they put time into developing their cadres of experts, which would take Venezuela over a decade.
During the early 1980's state electric power generator and transmitter CADAFE had given some consideration of construction of a nuclear power plant, and a site at Cabruta, Guarico state, had been purchased. However, this idea was subsequently abandoned and nuclear power has no place right now in Venezuela's electrical energy planning, which is oriented to the construction of gas fired plants, as the potential for hydro power becomes exhausted with the construction of the last of four dams on the Caroni River, due to finish in 2008.
When IVIC's nuclear program existed, Venezuela's military had a definite, but limited interest in it. At one point, a scientist who had dual Venezuelan-Colombian citizenship had been nominated to run the nuclear program. For "strategic" reasons, the Armed Forces vetoed his appointment. The military itself had invested some small effort to develop nuclear expertise, but had made nowhere near the same commitment that counterparts in Argentina or Brazil had made in the 1970's and 1980's. It had sent a few officers abroad to study nuclear physics or engineering, and sought to have one officer working at IVIC at any given moment. However, the high intellectual quality of the few officers who had received nuclear training meant they were in demand for other positions, either military or civilian, where some technical capability was required. The officer most renowned in this field was at one point reassigned from IVIC to run the "National Waterways Institute" which manages dredging on the Orinoco River, Lake Maracaibo and other commercially important bodies of water.
Any nuclear program, even a basic research one, would have to be completely turn-key. And then, for a decade, foreign scientists and engineers would have to be brought in actually to turn the key of any facility. The large sums of money to be spent would have to come out of the short-term, politically profitable social spending that was the hallmark of GOV policies under Chavez. Still, the prospect of having some kind of nuclear capability doubtless had a visceral appeal for him. The countries that he saw as its potential comrades in a global anti-US crusade -- Russia, China, India, Brazil, and Iran -- all have nuclear programs, either peaceful or military. Belonging to that club would fit well with Chavez's pretensions.
A new small research reactor could be purchased for about US$30 million. Scholarships to send Venezuelans abroad to study nuclear science or engineering would cost several millions. A basic geochemical map of Venezuela, which would be the logical first step of re-starting a uranium search program would cost about US$250,000, although further follow-on would be required. But while the basics are not that expensive, anything beyond that, such as the actual construction of a nuclear power generation plant would take hundreds of millions of dollars.
On 27 November 2008 Russia and Venezuela signed a nuclear energy cooperation agreement. The deal was signed by Venezuelan Energy and Petroleum Minister Rafael Dario Ramirez Carreno and Rosatom head Sergei Kiriyenko on Wednesday in the presence of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez. The document provides a framework for cooperation in thermonuclear fusion, the safety of nuclear facilities and radiation sources, as well as the design, development, construction, operation and decommissioning of research reactors and nuclear power plants. It also deals with the use of radioisotopes in industry, medicine, and agriculture, the prospecting and development of uranium deposits, and the development of nuclear infrastructure. The only part of the Russian agreement that had any potential might be the exploration and exploitation of thorium, as Venezuela has significant deposits of that resource. As to the rest of the agreement, meaningful cooperation is not possible. All Venezuela is currently capable of is the purchase of finished materials and technology.
Russia and Venezuela signed on 15 October 2010 an agreement on the construction of a nuclear power station in the South American country as part of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's visit to Moscow. The agreement was reached in April 2010 during Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's visit to Caracas. "We signed an action plan for 2010-2014 and a number of bilateral agreements, which show the level that our partnership has reached," Medvedev said.
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