Each BRICS member has already played a prominent role in multinational nuclear nonproliferation dialogues. Now, the BRICS have a chance to become one of the major collective forces in the world’s developing nuclear order.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, left, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, second left, and South African President Jacob Zuma, center back to camera, greet each other, while Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, right wearing green, takes a seat during the BRICS 2014 summit in Brazil. Photo: AP

One overlooked aspect of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) movement is its potential to contribute to nuclear nonproliferation. A noteworthy feature of last month’s BRICS summit in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza (and the lengthy visits by the presidents of Russia and China to South America coinciding with the summit) was the series of nuclear energy deals they announced.

Despite their different energy profiles, the BRICS share a common pro-nuclear energy perspective. In 2013, the BRICS had a total installed nuclear power capacity of 47.8 gigawatts (GW). According to the World Nuclear News, 50 of the 66 nuclear reactors presently under construction are located in the BRICS. 

In coming years, the BRICS will build most of the world’s new nuclear power plants, giving the group even more influence over global nuclear policies. Insofar as this construction will allow these countries to burn less oil and coal, this growing nuclear energy production will also help curb harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

The Russian Federation had more nuclear power capacity than any other country, more than 25 GW last year. The Russian government is seeking to increase this capacity as well as Russian nuclear energy exports. Russia is already selling nuclear technology and fuel to the other BRICS, including China.

For at least the next few years, China is forecast to build more nuclear energy plants than any other country. China plans to install more than two-dozen nuclear reactors, accounting for two-fifths of all the reactors now under construction in the world. The government aims to grow its capacity from 12.5 GW today to 58 GW by the end of 2020. China’s nuclear industry has been making considerable progress in designing more advanced nuclear reactors and related products. It wants to expand its role in global nuclear exports.

Brazil’s existing two nuclear reactors generate 3 percent of the country’s electricity. The country is already building a third reactor and is considering adding four more in the next two decades. South Africa’s government is currently assessing a possible $29 billion nuclear power program to help manage the country’s expanding energy requirements.

Russia and China, both UN Security Council permanent members with the right to veto Council decisions, have played key roles in the two separate six-party talks aimed at persuading Iran and North Korea to not seek nuclear weapons in return for receiving assistance developing civilian nuclear energy programs.

During their South American trips, both the Russian and Chinese presidents promoted nuclear energy cooperation. Vladimir Putin oversaw a deal in which Russia’s Rosatom state-owned nuclear company offered to help construct Argentina’s third nuclear reactor.

Putin also presided over a memorandum of understanding between Rosatom and Brazil’s Camargo Correa holding company on building a nuclear power plant and a spent fuel storage facility in Brazil. During Xi Jinping’s visit to Argentina, the two governments signed a civil nuclear energy cooperation accord and China agreed to help build that country’s fourth nuclear plant. All these agreements committed the recipients to keep their nuclear programs peaceful.

At the Fortaleza summit, Putin suggested that the BRICS establish a new "energy association" with an energy policy institute and a fuel-reserve bank.” Yet, various contradictions constrain the BRICS’ nuclear nonproliferation potential. Brazil, India, and South Africa have fundamental complaints about the existing nuclear order.

For example, they want to see more rapid global disarmament and object that the foundational Nuclear Nonproliferation (NPT) Treaty is discriminatory, legally allowing the five countries that tested nuclear weapons when the treaty entered into force to retain them, at least temporarily. Russia and China are two of those five NPR-recognized nuclear weapons states and both support the NPT.

Nonetheless, Russia and China do support the demands of Brazil, India, and South Africa that they be allowed to develop extensive civilian nuclear energy programs to include technologies — such as uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing — that can be misused for military purposes. 

All of the BRICS are understandably concerned at the enthusiasm of Western governments for nonproliferation sanctions, which they also see as discriminatory and wrongheaded. They believe that the best way to discourage nuclear proliferation is through reassurance rather than sanctions.

They also complain that many Western sanctions apply to their firms — which they see as an extra-territorial attempt to coerce them to apply Western policies and preferences.

These shared perspectives challenge the positions of the United States and other Western governments. Fortunately, the BRICS have declared their openness to cooperating with non-members on this and other issues. All of this hints at a future in which the BRICS continue to push forward an agenda of nuclear nonproliferation.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. He would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for supporting his nonproliferation research.