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India holds on to nuclear dream

By Bala Menon
of Gulf News
(copyright © 1997 Al Nisr Publishing)

'Scuttle' is now the operative word for the strong pro-nuclear lobby in the Indian political-scientific establishment. In the negotiations under way at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on the proposed Fissile Material Production Cutoff treaty, India is taking the same position it took with regard to the other two disarmament accords: The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

New Delhi is determined that the treaty will never come into play - until its primary demand that the Big Five consider complete disarmament instead of crafting piecemeal, discriminatory agreements which leave existing stockpiles intact and prevent other players from entering the nuclear arena. There is also the argument that such accords impinge on national sovereignty, especially the right to opt for appropriate defence strategies. Indian planners have valid arguments: India is not a rogue state, its nuclear technology has been indigenously developed and it has acted with remarkable restraint even in the most volatile times, and refrained from conducting nuclear tests after the successful Pokharan 'implosion' of 1972.

It was in September 1983 that Washington outlined its proposal for a global convention banning the production of sensitive materials like plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) or putting such production under strict international safeguards. The declared intention was to 'cap and roll back' nuclear weapons programmes of countries other than the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain whose nuclear hegemony was legitimised by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty of 1970 and extended indefinitely last year.

The United Nations General Assembly which has adopted several resolutions since 1978 calling for such a cut-off, finally endorsed the proposal last year - with the proviso that such a convention be non-discriminatory and apply equally to the nuclear powers as well. The proposal for talks also received the support of India and Pakistan, and Israel declared that it "is not opposed" to the concept of achieving a world-wide moratorium on the production of such materials. Another objective of the convention as stated by U.S. President Bill Clinton was to "prevent terrorist and other sub-national groups from gaining access to sensitive radioactive materials used in civilian nuclear programmes" especially in countries which were part of the former Soviet Union.

Gadget/Little Boy
The world's first atomic bomb, Gadget, tested by the U.S. in the New Mexican desert in June 1945 contained about 6kg of plutonium 239. Little Boy, dropped over Hiroshima contained 60kg of HEU235 as did the Fat Man used on Nagasaki. Modern techniques can help build a nuclear weapon using much smaller quantities of the two materials. The International Security and Defence Policy Centre of the Rand Corporation of the United States estimated in a 1995 study that seven countries - Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa can quickly produce enough fissile materials to make about 230 nuclear bombs per year.

This is in addition to a stockpile accumulated by these countries - enough to manufacture 220 bombs. Rand says 70 per cent of this stockpile is in the possession of India and Israel. Countries like France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Japan also process in their nuclear fuel cycles enough plutonium to make the equivalent of 5,500 bombs a year. The Rand study said Western governments worry about diversion or seizure of even a fraction of this plutonium by outcast states or extremist groups.

The biggest flaw in the proposed convention, however, is that it would not cover existing stockpiles but only put such material produced in the future under international safeguards. And as India argues, this is again just another version of the NPT - for it effectively thwarts only the threshold states. That the new treaty is supported by the same 170 countries that backed the NPT makes the Indian argument a valid one. The goal of preventing horizontal proliferation has almost been achieved but the prevention of vertical proliferation - also a cherished goal of the NPT - is still to be addressed by the Big Five.

The NPT also starts on a false premise for India. For instance, it defines a nuclear-weapon state as "one which has manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to January 1, 1967." India does not come into the picture anywhere although it considers itself a nuclear pioneer. This is a matter of pique for Indian politicians and scientists. The only concession given in the run-up to the talks on the Fissile Cutoff treaty is that nuclear-weapon states will also agree not to produce weapons-grade plutonium or HEU.

Here again, with the exception of China, the nuclear powers do not use HEU for weapons or produce plutonium for weapons any more. The threshold states have also warned that tomorrow's weapons could be based on materials like tritium or other metals - which do not come under the purview of the treaty - or other technologies which are controlled by the West. Proponents of the treaty also call for full dismantling of all production facilities, end of recycling, and the setting up of an international register and monitoring under international control and storage. National sovereignty is at stake here and it is doubtful that all countries would agree to such stringent safeguards.

The Geneva negotiations have already become complicated with the United Kingdom, France and Russia complaining about the high costs and trouble of bringing their facilities under such safeguards. In India, all political parties reached a consensus at a meeting late last year to oppose the treaty and has urged the government to link the Fissile Cutoff treaty to the overall disarmament objective - the destruction of all nuclear weapons within a time-bound programme, with discussions on other issues to come later.

New Delhi knows that the international community cannot exert its will in this regard. The big powers have no political or economic leverage in New Delhi. Any sanctions will have to be on a massive scale and will be difficult to enforce for any length of time and then even Israel has to be brought within its scope (Israel is believed to have some 200 nuclear weapons kept ready for final assembly) and the security environment of the South Asian region - with both China and Russia as nuclear neighbours - is such that India is able to argue its case to stay out of nuclear accords convincingly.

Although it faces isolation at Geneva, and later in the UN General Assembly where it is unlikely that any Indian amendments will be accepted, New Delhi is certain to go it alone. The treaty itself, even if adopted is not a substantive one. A cutoff would cap only future production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Talks will then have to be held on other accords on transferring stocks to IAEA control and measures of verification.

(This article appeared in the Op-Ed pages of Gulf News, one of the premier newspapers in the Middle East, published from Dubai. June 26, 1997).


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