Nuclear Nonproliferation Efforts Should Not Neglect South America

Nuclear Nonproliferation Efforts Should Not Neglect South America

The news last week that six Arab states are beginning efforts to acquire nuclear technology -- although the technology is ostensibly for civil power generation -- is stark evidence that non-proliferation efforts around the world must not be neglected. The world has been focused on the Oct. 9 North Korean nuclear test and the Iranian nuclear program and its regional consequences. But the threat of nuclear proliferation is not limited to Asia and the Middle East. South America also poses a threat.

South American allies Argentina and Brazil abandoned their relatively advanced nuclear weapons programs, signed the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and agreed to the Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) -- the Treaty of Tlatelolco -- by the mid-1990s. However, it now seems possible that Brazil will restart its program. This could reopen old wounds between the former adversaries. Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela -- a country with uranium deposits -- is using oil proceeds to buy Russian armaments and is supporting Iran in its pursuit of a nuclear program.

Brazil inaugurated its first uranium enrichment plant in May 2006, despite international pressure not to do so. Unlike Iran, it has plausible reasons for wanting an indigenous nuclear fuel capability -- energy independence and energy security. But with such a capability it is one step closer to obtaining the bomb. Brazil and Argentina have long been regarded as "latent" nuclear powers -- they possess the expertise and much of the technology to go nuclear, but for the moment are restrained legally and politically from doing so. However, the model adopted by North Korea and Iran -- staying "legal" until just before declaring a nuclear weapon capability, then pulling out of the NPT -- demonstrates how fragile such restraints can be.

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