Foreign assistance, mainly from West Germany, has enabled Argentina and Brazil to develop independent nuclear programs which could ultimately have military as well as peaceful purposes. In a six-month investigation into nuclear nonproliferation by ABC News, West German government and commercial spokesmen were evasive when asked about this support.
West Germany has reportedly provided Argentina with reprocessing technology needed to extract weapons-grade plutonium from the 1970s up to this year.
Under the US nonproliferation act, passed in 1978, the US should cut off all nuclear exports to West Germany, US administration officials say. It has not done so. The most important of these exports would be enriched uranium for West Germany's large nuclear-power program.
Despite international safeguards and surveillance, the spent nuclear fuel stored at Atucha I, a power reactor acquired from West Germany, has a high plutonium content, ``one of the essential components of the bomb,'' says Argentine scientist Jos'e Westerkamp.
Argentina is building a reprocessing plant at Ezeiza, near Buenos Aires, with assistance from the United States, West Germany, and Italy. The plant is estimated to be capable of producing enough material for two bombs a year. It is not subject to international controls.
On Nov. 18, 1983, shortly before the inauguration of President Ra'ul Alfons'in, Argentina suddenly revealed construction of an enrichment plant at Pilcaniyeu in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. This facility could give Argentina direct access to large quantities of weapons-grade uranium. ``We have decided not to build the bomb. . . . We want a Latin America without atomic bombs,'' Mr. Alfons'in later told a reporter.
But neither Argentina nor Brazil, its neighbor and rival, has agreed to sign the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty.
``In 1960 we agreed to end our rivalry and work together in the nuclear field,'' a top Argentine nuclear consultant said last year. ``After all, we are not enemies. We AIDAID don't want bombs. We do need nuclear-generated electricity.''
In Brazil, the government still insists it needs expensive nuclear power, despite the nation's huge debt burden and its abundant and much cheaper natural gas, hydropower, and other energy sources.
For decades, West German scientists and engineers have worked in the Argentine and Brazilian nuclear industries. Former Third Reich nuclear and rocket experts moved their technology, their firms, and their intellectual abilities to South America to escape Allied controls during and after World War II.
In 1975, West Germany and Brazil signed a multibillion-dollar nuclear deal, despite efforts to block it by the US, which had already sold a reactor to Brazil. Under the deal, Brazil has acquired two power reactors and an option on six more from the West German company Kraftwerk Union, though Brazil may be unable to afford the other reactors.
Although Brazil's enrichment plant at Sao Jos'e dos Campos, also purchased from West Germany, could be used to make nuclear weapons, it is under international controls.
Brazil has reportedly begun its own secret parallel nuclear program, scientific sources in Brazil say. It has access to work in its reprocessing and enrichment facilities at IPEN, a state laboratory installation in Sao Paulo, and at a Brazilian Air Force facility there -- unsafeguarded by international supervision.
Brazil has been testing a series of short- and medium-range weather rockets, developed with help from Bonn and the firm of Messerschmidt-Blohm-Bolkow. The rockets, which are known as the Sonda series, have military counterparts. Brazilian military publications give Sonda IV, the latest, a range of more than 350 miles. The magazine Aviacao Militar has described how Brazilian rocketry could be fitted with nuclear warheads, should Brazil make such warheads.
US analysts are reluctant to discuss the parallel military-rocket program because of its potential as a nuclear delivery system, and because rocket work in West Germany itself on the program may have violated post-World War II controls that the Allies imposed in 1954 on rocket and other sensitive-weapons research. (The controls governing rockets were lifted by the Council of Europe in June 1984.)
``We are afraid that Brazil, now a major arms dealer, will sell or has already sold the rockets to either or both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, or to other states looking for new conventional or nuclear delivery systems,'' said a Western scientific expert in Germany.
The writer, a former Monitor staff correspondent, is now with ABC News in London.