IN recent months, while the attention of the United States has been riveted to the administration's Iran-contra misadventure and its obsession with Nicaragua, let alone the stock market, a development is occurring elsewhere in the hemisphere which may adversely affect prospects for future peace much more profoundly than the current crisis in Central America. Brazil, although traditionally well disposed to Washington, is rapidly and independently moving to develop the technology required to build an atomic-fueled submarine and, official denials aside, use the experience to construct nuclear weapons. Washington has all but ignored the South American giant's possible challenge to the hemispheric balance of power.
Overall responsibility for what would be the country's nuclear weapon program is in the hands of the Brazilian National Security Council. It is estimated that this armed forces superagency controls a budget of upwards of $3 billion.
Brazil's press reported last August that an underground nuclear test site exists in the Serra do Cachimbo area in the Amazon Basin. The armed forces, when queried, only fanned the speculation over whether it is in a testing phase.
Brazil's nuclear research is proceeding on two tracks: The first is a ``peaceful,'' civilian-run program that is subject to strict International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, which in the past year has been the object of drastic spending cuts because of the country's perilous economic condition. The second track, however, operates with an unaudited and seemingly unlimited budget in unsafeguarded secrecy, and is supervised by the armed forces and the National Nuclear Energy Commission.
Brazil's nuclear energy commission (CNEN) and Navy are working on a uranium enrichment plant at the University of Sao Paulo's Institute of Nuclear and Energy Research. That facility is striving both to produce highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium and to obtain plutonium 239, another essential raw material for a nuclear device.
The latter agency is also working on the effort to put a nuclear-powered submarine in the water, according to an April article in the respected Brazilian newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo, which cited an unnamed admiral close to the project. Researchers at the facility are involved in enriching uranium to 70 percent grade in order to build the proposed vessel's light-water reactor.
Before Brazil can launch a nuclear submarine, though, it must first build a conventional one to gain the necessary technological experience. An anonymous ranking naval officer explained that ``all this is connected in such a way that it won't be surprising if things suddenly start to move faster.'' The conventional program, it turns out, is based on a licensing agreement with a West German firm, which has allowed Brazil to select a model specially chosen because of its close approximation to a nuclear submarine's specifications.
According to CNEN president Rex Nazare, the country will be ready to build a nuclear submarine after 1992. Various Brazilian military officials have indicated that the country could generate a nuclear weapons capability before that date, perhaps as early as 1990. These developments will not only make Brazil the second nuclear power in the hemisphere, but also cap its preeminence in the region, at the expense of Argentina - which is sure not to let this development go unnoticed, given its own sophisticated nuclear capabilities.
That's not all. Brazilian Air Force researchers are now working to boost the strategic range of the country's tactical ballistic missiles to 930 miles. With nuclear warheads and strategic ballistic missiles, Brazil will be well positioned to break into an exclusive circle of nations that not only possess nuclear weapons, but are also able to missile-launch them to targets.
It is all but certain that within the next five years Brazil will sound the tocsin on the United States nuclear weapons monopoly in the hemisphere. Washington's policymakers would be well advised to stop ignoring this emergent superpower's nuclear ambitions and, instead of focusing inordinate attention on what will eventually be seen as the relatively minor issues involved in Central America, come forth with a clear policy that will effectively deal with a major complicating factor in not only hemispheric affairs, but the global nuclear picture as well.