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Nuclear weapons can also be built from enriched uranium, but that requires an entirely different kind of infrastructure, built around thousands upon thousands of industrial centrifuges. There is no evidence or even suggestion at this time that Venezuela is seeking to enrich uranium; Iran, by comparison, certainly is. Enriched uranium is somewhat easier to make than plutonium, which requires an entire additional phase in the production process, but plutonium is better suited to making weapons, as it packs more explosive power into a smaller amount of material. Bang for buck is a critical consideration for making nuclear weapons small enough to be carried on a missile or plane.
It is unlikely, therefore, based on the currently available information, that Venezuela is seeking to develop its own nuclear arsenal using its domestic nuclear program. The question remains, however — what is a country with plentiful supplies of oil and natural gas seeking nuclear power for? What advantage does Russia see in helping them to do so, beyond the simple economic benefits to its own nuclear industry? Perhaps most importantly, for both nations, it allows them to test the United States, to take steps that they know will displease Washington, and to do so publicly and in full view of the world, thus showing to other anti-Western regimes that America is unable police even its own backyard.
Chavez no doubt also sees domestic political advantage in building a large nuclear plant in his own country. It will serve as a showcase of Venezuela’s technical progress, will provide high-tech jobs for his citizens, and, by producing electricity free of fossil fuels, will free up more of Venezuela’s oil reserves for profitable export on the world market. As a prestige project, it will serve as a powerful symbol for the Chavez regime, and he can be fully expected to turn it into a propaganda tool to use against America, pointing to it as a symbol of his close ties with a rising Russian power and as a sign of America’s impotence to interfere in Venezuelan affairs. That Venezuela’s economy is in shambles and the country’s social fabric has deteriorated are inconveniences Chavez seems entirely happy to ignore. His future nuclear reactors and sophisticated weapons, also provided by Russia, are more powerful as symbols than they are as literal tools.
Venezuela’s nuclear reactors are unlikely to lead to a global catastrophe (though a careful watch must be kept to ensure that they do not attempt to provide assistance to other states with nuclear ambitions, given the country’s obviously close ties to Iran). But as a sign of Chavez’s desire to push for big symbolic projects even as his citizens suffer, these reactors will almost assuredly prove to be a catastrophe for the Venezuelan people. Venezuelan’s need jobs, economic freedom, and democracy. Instead, they’ll get propaganda, Russian weapons, and nuclear power in a country rich in natural gas and oil. And America, as always, will get the blame.
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.