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Digital Archive International History Declassified

August 08, 1986

NEWSPAPER ARTICLE, 'SERRA DO CACHIMBO MAY BE NUCLEAR TEST SITE'

This document was made possible with support from the Leon Levy Foundation

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    This newspaper article discusses an underground nuclear test site being built at Serra do Cachimbo for the Brazilian military and claims that production of a nuclear weapon was "already under way." President Sarney denied the report.
    "Newspaper Article, 'Serra Do Cachimbo May Be Nuclear Test Site'," August 08, 1986, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Folha de São Paulo. Obtained and translated by Fundação Getúlio Vargas. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/117522
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SERRA DO CACHIMBO MAY BE NUCLEAR TEST SITE

The Brazilian government is building underground facilities at Serra do Cachimbo, in the south of Pará, near the border with Mato Grosso,  for military purposes. There are pits and cisterns whose features are adaptable for several kinds of nuclear tests and for the storage of nuclear waste from industrial plants. Geological and hydrological surveys have been conducted in the area since 1981. Last month work on a 320 meter deep and 1 meter wide pit was completed. The test area should be ready in 1991.

Last night, upon being informed by FOLHA that the newspaper was going to publish the news in to-day’s edition, President Sarney reacted with the following words, according to his press secretary Fernando Cesar Mesquita: "No document of this kind has ever come to my desk." The Minister Chief of the Military Household of the Presidency, general Rubens Bayma Denis, said – still according to Mesquita – that the information is "absolutely untrue." Air Force general Hugo de Oliveira Piva, director of the Technical AirSpace Center, at São José dos Campos(SP) was called to Brasília last night on an urgent basis. The region where the cisterns and pits are being built is a military area defined by decree during the Geisel Administration (1974-79). The Cuiabá-Santarém highway (BR 163) runs through it. It is 720 km away from Belém (PA), 1.200 km from Brasília and 676 km from Manaus. The three closest forest regions are the forest reserve of Mandurucânia, 130 km away, the Indian reserve Raó-Meocranotire  (60 km) and the Xingu National Park (360 km). The design of the test area was made by the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces and relies on the support of agencies linked to the Technical AirSpace Center (CTA) of the Ministry of the Air Force located at São José dos Campos, 97 km northeast of São Paulo; the Institute of Space Activities (IAE) and the Institute of Advanced Studies (IEAv). The Brazilian Air Force, which already had a 3.200 meter airstrip in the region, is responsible for the security of the military area.

Serra do Cachimbo was chosen because of the region’s geological conditions. It is a series of plateaus  with a maximum altitude of 640 meters above sea level, covered with sandstone and with a thick layer of igneous rock (therefore waterproof) and without the risk of reaching underground phreatic water. The military area at Serra do Cachimbo is located in the Itaituba municipality, the largest in Brazil, 700 km long.

Geological surveys conducted in the area are conclusive: there are no mineral resources to be explored. The characteristics of the subsoil at the location of the excavations have the stability needed for the construction of atomic waste disposal sites and of cisterns for nuclear tests. The military area of Serra do Cachimbo is already being used by the Armed Forces for tests with war materials like fragment bombs and conventional missiles.

The first pit to be built was completed last July. It is 320 meters deep and 1 meter wide. The Mineral Resources Research Company (CPRM) of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, started conducting geological and hydrological surveys of the region  in 1991, by request of the Aerospace Technical Center (CTA, of the Air Force Ministry).The first geologists dispatched to the region were from the Superintendency of CPRM in Minas Gerais. Since the beginning, the project was the subject of all security measures and the participating officials knew that it was "secret."

Perforation and internal covering of the completed pit took one year because CPRM did not have the needed technology for such a diameter. CTA had to import a perforation column from the United States.  This pit is located 17 km from the Cuiabá-Santarém highway. At times there were up to 40 people working in the construction of the pit. Only the CPRM directors had access to information on the progress of the construction, which was internally dubbed "Projeto Pedra do Índio" (Indian Rock Project). Since it was retained for the project by CTA, CPRM had three Presidents: José Raimundo de Andrade Ramos, general Salvador Mandin and José Carlos Boa Nova, the current one. Researchers from IEA, IEAv and the Navy continue to survey the terrain in order to demarcate the sites for the future cisterns and pits. Such survey is scheduled to be completed by the end of the current year. The size of the cisterns will be similar to that of the pit built in the past month. The difference is that the latter were covered with concrete and the cisterns will be lined with lead and asbestos, beside concrete. The excavations intended for the storage of atomic waste will be between 100 and 150 meters deep and the interior will be covered only with concrete. The explanation is that due to the depth, the risk of leakage is minimum.  

By the end of the year Brazil may become the first country south of the Equator to have areas reserved for nuclear tests and storage of atomic waste. The main objective of the  EMFA project is the mastery of leading edge technology (advanced studies in pure physics) to which only developed countries have access and which is never shared. Since last November EMFA has been assisted by researchers from the two agencies under CTA, the Institute of Space Activities (IAE) and the Institute of Advanced Studies (IEAv). These organs, together with the Navy Research Center and with the cooperation of  the Institute of Nuclear Research of the University of São Paulo  (USP) have been working for the past few years to acquire technological mastery over essential raw materials for the manufacture of nuclear devices; plutonium and enriched uranium.

Two main objectives led EMFA to take the project forward: soon the Angra nuclear plants will be in operation and the country will have to find a way of storing the atomic waste (uranium used in the reactor, radioactive materials plus other products and uranium not spent which receives a high amount of neutrons  and turns into plutonium) without causing hazard to the population of cities. The second objective is to build nuclear missiles.

The second phase of the project – the production of a nuclear warhead – is considered more important and is already under way. Last year an agreement between the governments of Brazil and the Popular Republic of China was signed for the exchange of technology that will permit the development of attack missiles with atomic warheads using solid fuel, similar to the ones used by the USA in the 60’s.

THE AREA WAS ACQUIRED IN THE 1970’S FOR TESTS

When it was acquired by the Armed Forces in the 1970’s, the area of Serra do Cachimbo, located in the south of Pará near the border with Mato Grosso, was meant to be used as a testing ground for war equipment recently obtained by the Army, Air Force and Navy. The area was suitable precisely because it was barren and therefore would not put at risk human lives, besides not attracting the attention of possible snoopers.

The Air Force is a good example of such tests since it constantly conducts trials of bombs and missiles on its airplanes. Recently, for instance, a new grenade-launching bomb from the Institute of Space Activities (IAE) was tested at the site. This equipment is capable of detonating 250 grenades simultaneously and causing damage to an area of 1 square kilometer. Brazilian companies also use the Serra to test new equipment. However, specifically in the case of the Air Force, tests of war materials are being carried out also in fields located at Maribaia (RJ) and Maxamgape (RN).  

THE PRESENCE OF WATER MAKES THE SITE UNSUITABLE, GEOLOGIST SAYS

Geologist Colombo Gaeta Tassinari, 32, a geologist from the Geosciences Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP) stated that from the geological standpoint the Serra do Cachimbo region is "unsuitable for the storage of radioactive material," since its soil is made up of sedimentary rock (limestone, arginite, sandstone and chaff) which would permit the seeping of water that "would be immediately contaminated"; in contact with the atomic waste. Tassinari has been studying the region of Serra do Cachimbo for the past ten years. In 1976 he conducted research on the spot and wrote a master dissertation on the geologic evolution of the territory in 1981. He was also a member of Project Radam (Amazon Radar) team that studied the region’s subsoil.

According to Tassinari, the consequence of the presence of radioactivity in the waters that circulate through the rocks of the plateau  would be "the contamination of the rivers of the region." He said that in an extreme situation there could be the risk of a "China syndrome," (the name of a movie about nuclear risks) that is, the contamination "of all the water in the planet." He added that this was the main fear after the explosion of the Soviet nuclear facility at Chernobyl.

Another risk, according to Tassinari, is the fact that the mesas that make up the plateau presents two large and very deep faults which "can cause the leakage of nuclear material in the event of a nuclear test." Certainly the risk of contamination would be greater, the geologist said.

Professor Luiz Carlos Menezes, of the Institute of Physics of USP, agrees with Tassinari’s opinion and considers the region "unsuitable for the storage of atomic waste." According to him, the modern techniques for the disposal of radioactive waste "look for regions that are not very permeable by water" as a security precaution. This is why, says Menezes, old salt mines are used to bury atomic waste. Additionally, the material is vitrified and placed in concrete cylinders.   

PHYSICISTS BELIVE THAT THE TESTS ARE POSSIBLE  

Informed by FOLHA about the construction of underground facilities at Serra do Cachimbo for possible atomic experiments, nuclear physicist Rogério Cerqueira Leite said that such construction "may mean that the government has decided to carry out small chain reactions in the area, preliminary nuclear reactions not designed to produce much energy but which would be useful for the definition of a plutonium producing process." Cerqueira Leite is a professor at the University of Campinas  (Unicamp) and a member of the FOLHA editorial council.

In a telephone interview from New Jersey, on the east coast of the United States, where he is at present, Cerqueira Leite dismissed the possibility that such facilities are used for storage of nuclear waste. "I do not believe that Brazil is so prematurely concerned with this question, mainly because the material used in a nuclear reactor can only be manipulated or transported to a final storage location after a cooling period of five to six years. Besides, the question of nuclear waste is very recent worldwide. Even in the United States."

Physicist José Zatz agrees with Cerqueira Leite. "This information is very much compatible with the carrying out of small tests with highly radioactive material, but we cannot exclude the possibility of tests with highly toxic or explosive materials."  For Cerqueira Leite, the concern of the authorities involved in the project in identifying an area free from existence of phreatic water in the subsoil "indicates that contaminating substances are being manipulated there, substances that could contaminate the underground water in case of leakages and consequently also the rivers, with tragic consequences."

Rogério Cerqueira Leite says that the information obtained by FOLHA is compatible with the construction of an "oven" for the production of plutonium. "Experiments of this kind are usually conducted in underground tunnels and security concerns are appropriate because one billionth of a gram of plutonium in the lung of a man is fatal," the scientist said.

Plutionium is produced by bombarding uranium 238 with neutrons from uranium 235. Experiments like those of the hypothesis brought forth by professor Cerqueira Leite aim at defining the stages of a process to obtain plutonium. "With the tests, some of them conducted at low temperatures, it is possible to identify the moderating agents needed for the process, as well as a large number of observations that would be necessary in the future. It is like carrying out the pilot project of a large undertaking," the physicist concluded.