A Nuclear Chavez

The Venezuelan strongman takes the next step.

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.

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 [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.