The specter of nuclear war in South America may be remote, but the spread of nuclear technology throughout the hemisphere is anything but distant. Brazil and Argentina have already entered the nuclear era as construction of a series of sophisticated nuclear power reactors in both countries nears completion.
Other Latin nations could follow. Mexico, for example, is constructing a modest nuclear facility outside Mexico City. Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela are also making preliminary studies for nuclear power plants.
Hemisphere commentators and Carter administration officials worry that it will only be a matter of time before one of these nations joins the once-exclusive "nuclear club" of nations with atomic weapons. Although it has toned down its opposition to Brazil's proposals, the Carter administration says it is "still actively opposed."
For the moment, only Argentina and Brazil are close to national competence in building a nuclear weapon. It is most unlikely that such weapons have already been constructed by either country, but the rapidly expanding number of nuclear reactors in each nation could well supply the fuel needed for nuclear weapons.
Both countries say, however, that their atomic energy efforts are "entirely peaceful," as Brazil's Foreign Ministry said last year.
Moreover, although Brazil and Argentina have long competed for hemisphere hegemony, they have patched up their differences with a series of agreements to cooperate on everything from hydroelectric power to nuclear facilities, and from education to defense. And there have been two meetings this year between the presidents of both countries -- Argentina's Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla and Brazil's Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo.
It is far from clear whether these efforts at defusing the potentially explosive rivalry between the two biggest South American countries downgrades the threat of a nuclear clash. But Argentina and Brazil can be expected to continue developing nuclear power.
Here is a rundown on where each country stands:
Brazil's nuclear program is a major one. Latin America's largest nation signed a $10 billion nuclear sales agreement with West Germany in June 1975. The arrangement immediately stirred controversy. Under its terms, the Kraftwerke Union (KWU), a subsidiary of the Siemens industrial complex, is supplying Brazil with up to eight water-cooled reactors.
In addition, the West Germans will build a uranium enrichment plant to convert natural uranium into commercial-grade uranium for use in generators. Finally, KWU is supplying a plant to recycle spent uranium fuel. A by- product of such processing is plutonium 239, a vital element in nuclear bombs.
The whole program arouses concern and controversy. But numerous construction postponements, some perhaps caused by opponents of nuclear power in Brazil, have made the issue slightly less pressing.
The West German deal was not the first Brazilian venture into nuclear power. Angra I, a 626-megawatt nuclear reactor, is being built by Westinghouse, a United States firm. It is not scheduled to be operational before mid-1981. Angra II, the first of the West German reactors, will not be ready until 1987.
The two are located at Itaorna beach in Angra dos Reis, 100 miles south of Rio de Janeiro.
Argentina is also moving forward with its own program and is in some ways ahead of Brazil. Some Argentine nuclear officials see their country as the leader in the area's nuclear power industry.
Argentina has Latin America's only operational nuclear plant -- the small 374 megawatt Atucha I outside Buenos Aires, in service since 1974.
A second plant, being constructed by a Canadian firm, is expected to come on line by 1982. Located at Embalse Rio Tercero in Cordoba Province, it is a 636 -megawatt facility. The country also has a $10 billion 20-year nuclear power program that calls for constructing six nuclear power plants by the year 2000.
Mexico's more modest program centers on the Laguna Verde plant that General Electric's Mexico subsidiary Ebasco is constructing outside Mexico City. This facility is not due to be on stream until 1984.