Latin America and the bomb

One of the more chilling byproducts of the Falkland/Malvinas war is heightened danger of nuclear weapons development in South America, specifically in Argentina and Brazil.

Argentina is clearly the most serious situation, with growing evidence that a combination of technical ability and political circumstances may result in detonation of a nuclear explosive device. Such a detonation could be perceived as a unifying boost to national morale much as was de Gaulle's decision for a nuclear test in the early '60s following the French humiliation in Algeria.

Both Argentina and Brazil are advancing toward full independent mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, and some ambiguity continues regarding whether all existing facilities are under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards (particularly for Argentina). Both refuse, as a matter of principle, full-scope IAEA safeguards. The two nations also reject the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and neither, as yet, has permitted the Tlatelolco Treaty , establishing a nuclear weapon-free zone in Latin America, to become applicable to their territory. Moreover, Argentina and Brazil have reserved the right to develop so-called peaceful nuclear explosives (PNEs) based on India's example.

The Reagan administration has sought to mend fences with the two nations by assuming a more flexible position as regards sharing of nuclear materials. This is evidenced in the administration's provision of a waiver to Brazil regarding receipt of fuel for its US-supplied power reactor, and supply of certain equipment to Argentina for its Swiss-built heavy water production facility.

These administration efforts have been designed to exploit loopholes in congressional restrictions (as embodied in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978) for nuclear cooperation with countries refusing full-scope IAEA safeguards. However, they have not been undertaken as part of a systematic and coherent nonproliferation policy and consequently have produced neither improvement in relations nor evidence of greater restraint by Argentina and Brazil.

The following policy considerations should be part of developing a new US approach:

* Cooperation with Western supplier countries, particularly the Federal Republic of Germany. Given the United States' reduced leverage in the region and the Latin American nations' own preference to broaden their global ties, the US should work closely with other supplier nations in developing positive incentives for Latin American countries to remain in a nuclear weapon-free status and wedded to the West in nuclear cooperation.

* Incorporation of Argentina and Brazil into formal supplier consultations and guidelines establishment. Both nations are moving into a supplier relationship, particularly as regards the Latin American region. Argentina is supplying small test reactors and uranium mining and fabrication know-how to other Latin American nations, and Brazil has supplied material to Iraq and will soon be able to supply heavy reactor components. Involvement in establishingm international procedures rather than being the object of such efforts could better assure their support of the nonproliferation regime.

* Encouragement of nuclear cooperation between Argentina and Brazil. Under a May 1980 agreement Argentina will supply Brazil with uranium and zircalloy tubes , and the Brazilian-German company NUCLEP will construct the core vessel and some other heavy components for Argentina's third (German-supplied) reactor. This cooperation could be encouraged and expanded as a means of removing mutual suspicions and helping create a predictable network of relations in a sensitive area. It could also help divert Argentina's attention from its recent loss into peaceful cooperation in a field where it has justifiable pride and leadership.

* Support for regional nuclear cooperation. Interest has existed for many years in creation of a South American equivalent of EURATOM (European Atomic Energy Community). In the process a relationship of trust and cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy by Latin American nations would be enhanced.

* Cooperation with Latin American nonproliferation-supporting nations to achieve full establishment of the Treaty of Tlatelolco. The treaty establishing a nuclear weapon-free zone in Latin America has now been ratified, without qualification, by 22 Latin American nations including Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru. It is notable that these nations also interpret Tlatelolco as not permitting so-called PNEs. The US has every incentive to work closely with Latin American supporters, particularly Venezuela and Mexico, to remove remaining obstacles and gain full acceptance of the agreement. This will require sacrifices, including a willingness by the US to reach new accommodations with Cuba, and by Latin American nations supporting Tlatelolco to prevail on Argentina and Brazil to agree to the illegality of PNEs under the treaty (in effect agreeing to a no-test pledge).

Nuclear development cannot be prevented, or significantly inhibited, in Argentina, Brazil, or ultimately all of Latin America. However, it can be encouraged to advance in a manner supportive of regional peace and security. It is time for US policymakers to look realistically at nuclear trends in Latin America and begin a deeper dialogue.

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