April 17, 2023
IMAGE: A reactor at Atucha II nuclear power plant in Zarate, Argentina, 2011. Photo by Enrique Marcarian for REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo.
In December 2015, there was a change of government in Argentina, marking the beginning of the presidential term of Mauricio Macri. The incoming executive power made the decision to create the Undersecretariat of Nuclear Energy (SSEN, in Spanish), dependent on the then Ministry of Energy and Mining of the Argentine nation. Within the SSEN, I was appointed director of nuclear security policies and nonproliferation. Among my many tasks, I participated in the implementation of measures and policies in the field of nuclear security and nonproliferation, collaborating with others in the coordination between the relevant actors in this matter, such as the Argentine National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA), Nuclear Regulatory Authority (ARN), and Ministry of Security, among others. In addition, I also was part of the coordination of these topics at the regional and international levels.
Serving as director for my country was one of the greatest honors I have had in my life. It was also a communion between my profession, my vocation, and my studies in political science and international relations. Somehow, a superior combination of my daily tasks, my personal longings and objectives, and my academic studies. I felt I was able to “walk” what I studied and taught in different universities.
One of the greatest satisfactions I had during the period I held this position was participating in the reactivation and reinvigoration of the relationship in the nuclear field with Argentina’s main strategic partner, the Federative Republic of Brazil.
The relationship with Argentina’s Latin American “cousin” is undoubtedly complex, although not necessarily complicated. Argentina and Brazil have had advanced development in terms of peaceful uses of nuclear energy in place since the 1950s, and they have grown in this matter following a mirror path. If I may use a domestic metaphor, it seems like a typical family competition in which these countries set out to conquer and dominate the peaceful uses of nuclear technology in a time when there were just a few players in the world.
It is always said that these cousins managed to build a path together and progressively went from competing to cooperating in nuclear technology.
One of the most important milestones of this cooperation was the creation of the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) in 1991. How this has happened has been much studied and written about. So far there is no proven hypothesis, but without a doubt the technical exchanges between the CNEA experts and their Brazilian counterpart, the National Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN), the multiple meetings organized by both foreign ministries, the exchanges on regulatory matters, and so many other small “big” actions enabled this partnership and technological cooperation.
In my almost four years as director, I had the privilege of witnessing (and helping implement) the concrete manifestations of this partnership in nuclear matters. One of the most interesting processes that I had the privilege of experiencing was the revitalization of the meetings of the Permanent Committee on Nuclear Policy (CPPN). The CPPN emerged in 1988 after the Iperó Declaration between Presidents Raul Alfonsín of Argentina and José Sarney of Brazil, institutionalizing a space for operational coordination and promotion of civil nuclear projects in both countries.
Undoubtedly, the CPPN transcended presidential mandates and political parties, becoming a state policy sustained over time. At the time of my taking office in December 2015, it had been a while since a CPPN meeting was held. Working with all the actors involved in both countries, it was possible to relaunch the committee and hold a series of meetings, rotating venues between Argentina and Brazil. During these meetings, we had a sincere, open political and technical dialogue, where representatives of nuclear stakeholders from both countries discussed issues related to existing joint nuclear projects (such as the Brazilian Multi-Purpose Reactor and the Argentine RA-10 Reactor), possible bilateral exercises on nuclear security, different aspects of nuclear safeguards, possible collaborations on regulatory framework development, and communication of positions on nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament.
When I was a college student, I read many books and articles on how nuclear epistemic communities of experts from both countries helped bring them together and about the transition from competence to cooperation. Being part of those meetings offered me the privilege of witnessing how organically both countries’ technical communities functioned together and how much they have worked with each other. It is so important to understand and really know your counterpart. It was clear that we were speaking the same language—even though we literally weren’t. I think that one of the main lessons learned in my experience is the importance of developing relationships from technical points of agreement. Somehow, I experienced the effectiveness of the bottom-up approach.
I witnessed and participated in honest dialogues on complex issues, where both countries agreed to discuss sensitive matters and build bridges to find common ground, even considering different positions and ideas. An open and fraternal communication, despite the contrasts and potential discrepancies. A successful process (regardless of the result) because of the process itself, due to a permanent dialogue between friends and colleagues. Having periodic and constant bilateral meetings creates a path to develop a common understanding through time, little by little. It is not a one-shot meeting but an open dialogue between historical partners through time. Each meeting was built on the developments of previous ones (again, regardless of the concrete output of each one). I witnessed firsthand how public policies can be coordinated at the bilateral (or regional) level without necessarily having a unification of positions. That is, how to build a community having a real, respectful, and empathic understanding of your counterpart. As long as there is a dialogue, the process will be successful.
All my academic life, I studied the nuclear relationship between these two countries. During my 15 minutes in the spotlight, I was able to witness (and be part of) how history unfolds and understand how open communications between parties allow for greater understanding, despite our particular and potential differences.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Stanley Center for Peace and Security or any other agency, institution, or partner.
 For more information, see Governments of Argentina and Brazil, Iperó Declaration. Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil: 8 April 1998. https://tratados.cancilleria.gob.ar/tratado_archivo.php?tratados_id=kqGlnJU=&tipo=kg==&id=mqKq&caso=pdf.
Tomás Bieda has 10 years of experience in the field of nuclear security at the national and international level. Currently, he is a Senior Project Manager at the World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS). Before that, he worked for the Office of International Nuclear Security (INS) of the USA National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Previously, he has served as Director of Nuclear Security Policies and Nonproliferation in Argentina, and worked as an Advisor to the Board of Directors of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority in that country.