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Fallout from Nuclear Deal

While a significant world view holds that India wishes to enlarge its nuclear arsenal through the Indo-US nuclear deal, it is up to India to reassure the world that the deal has in no way altered India's policy of minimal deterrence. It is equally important to send a clear signal to nuclear hawks that success in negotiating the nuclear deal does not constitute an open licence for building a large and dangerous arsenal.

Fallout from Nuclear Deal

While a significant world view holds that India wishes to enlarge its nuclear arsenal through the Indo-US nuclear deal, it is up to India to reassure the world that the deal has in no way altered India’s policy of minimal deterrence. It is equally important to send a clear signal to nuclear hawks that success in negotiating the nuclear deal does not constitute an open licence for building a

large and dangerous arsenal.


ugust 6, Hiroshima Day, comes around every year to offer us a renewed opportunity for evaluating where we stand with respect to the shadow of nuclear holocausts and for introspecting over our nuclear policies and institutions.

In India, the past year has given us plenty to ponder over. The highlight of the year was, of course, the Indo-US nuclear agreement. A new discussion is now taking place on the changes proposed by the United States Congress, but the parameters of the nuclear deal are more or less final.

It is, therefore, not untimely to make a mid-course assessment of the agreement, and also of the debate that preceded it, which in itself was an important phenomenon with significant consequences, good and bad. It is also a time to remind ourselves that amidst all the excitement that the nuclear deal has generated, the dangers of a nuclear south Asia with steadily increasing arsenals continue to be very much there and the need for nuclear arms control is as compelling as ever.

Debate on Nuclear Deal

Let us start with a point which may seem minor on the scale of nuclear weapon dangers but it is nevertheless important and has gone relatively unnoticed. One definitely beneficial consequence of the deal for India has been the very fact that a nationwide discussion took place on the subject. The nuclear deal is one that would normally be considered too esoteric a subject for anyone other than national security experts and nuclear scientists. Despite this, the vigour and breadth of the public debate, stretching from July 2005 when the agreement was first announced to March 2006 when negotiations over the civil-military separation plan were finally completed, was unprecedented. The diligence with which political scientists and journalists acquired the basics of what exactly happens in a fast breeder, of the different grades of uranium, plutonium and so on was heart warming to a physicist.

That is a healthy development. Matters of science and technology are rarely analysed by the public. True, the media do carry science popularisation programmes and articles for your average science buff. We all get excited when someone gets or does not get a Nobel Prize. But matters of public policy on science and technology and the way the large Source and Technology (S and T) community in India conducts its affairs are rarely subject to any educated public scrutiny.

This has been particularly true of our nuclear technology, both civilian and military. There is practically no training given in any university or IIT on nuclear technology, and most available expertise is concentrated within the walls of the department of atomic energy (DAE). As a result, when there were brief outbursts of public concern about reactor safety (as happened in Karnataka with the Kaiga reactor), citizens seeking independent expert opinion had nowhere to turn. This is in sharp contrast to the situation in the US, Germany or the UK which have a widespread group of non-governmental experts to provide meaningful checks and balances.

Similarly, in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests there was little discussion based on sound science on the physical dangers of possessing and deploying nuclear weapons. Those that expressed such concerns were dealt with, not by scientific counter-arguments, but through the political device of relegating them as insufficiently patriotic peaceniks. Finally, the few calls for quantifying the planned size of our nuclear arsenal based on the government’s stated principle of minimal deterrence remained cries in the wilderness.

Civil-Military Divide

Then came the Indo-US nuclear deal, which was primarily related to civilian energy but which, ironically, made it possible to discuss all these military issues openly. As the intelligentsia began to realise that the deal hinged on the line separating the civilian facilities from the military , which in turn, depends crucially on the projected size of the nuclear arsenal, mainstream commentators started raising the question of how big a nuclear force we really need. These are all major gains for the participation of civil society in this serious life and death policy issue.

There has, however, been one very worrisome consequence of the nuclear deal. It has ended up creating the impression among many people that India is aiming for a much bigger nuclear arsenal than what I believe our government really has in mind.

Recall that the fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam was one of the most contentious items in the negotiations between the two countries. From the outset our DAE officials had categorically declared that the breeder would not be subject to safeguards. Some of their reasons were

Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006 understandable. The DAE scientists, working in isolation because of international sanctions, have had to invent various technological features for their reactor programmes. They may have feared that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections may compromise their intellectual property rights. They may also have felt that further design changes in the fast breeder programme may be hampered by the IAEA procedures and clearances.

But these arguments were not necessarily a bar to placing the breeder and its plutonium feeding power reactors under safeguards. That could still have been done, subject to the condition that the IAEA ensure the sanctity of DAE’s design and trade secrets. The terms of inspection are to be directly negotiated by India with the IAEA, which does have a record of inspecting other research facilities around the world. Indeed, the case for keeping the breeder outside safeguards based only on intellectual property rights and impediments to research may not have held up.

Meantime the DAE put out further statements saying that placing the breeder under safeguards would not only jeopardise energy security but even national security. Strictly speaking, this stance was legitimate since until now all our nuclear facilities are in principle open to dual use. But the general impression given for decades was that the breeder reactor was designed for a major civilian goal – to fill a lacuna in our nuclear power generating capacity arising from the paucity of our uranium ore as compared to the abundance of our thorium reserves.

In the event, upon invoking this ominous threat to national security, the case for keeping the breeder outside safeguards got a much stronger show of support from the public and from political groups in India. Eventually, the Americans also acquiesced to this position, in part because of Bush’s keenness to reach an agreement during his March visit.

But, notwithstanding the widespread satisfaction in India that we had stood firm against the Americans and got our way, it was very unfortunate that the national security argument had to be invoked in the process. Threat to national security is a very potent and scary phrase, especially coming from nuclear scientists. It has strong patriotic overtones and should be viewed as sacrosanct and used very sparingly. To have allowed the national flag to be used as a safety net, as it were, was unwise. It may well come back to haunt us. Indeed to an extent, it is already having negative repercussions.

Nuclear Threat

After the separation details were announced, it did not take long for the international community of nuclear experts to do their arithmetic and point out the possible implications of placing the breeder reactor outside safeguards, especially for national security reasons. When stripped of its veneer national security here meant, in plain words, that we needed the plutonium from the breeder programme for making more nuclear weapons.

Now, it is generally accepted that India already has a stock of about half a metric tonne of weapons grade plutonium, produced by the Cirus and Dhruva reactors over the years. At five kg to a weapon this is sufficient to make a hundred nuclear warheads of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki strength.

We have been repeatedly arguing for some years that even if you believed in nuclear deterrence, an arsenal of 100 weapons is more than enough to provide minimal deterrence by threatening damage unacceptable to any sane leadership on the other side. Indeed, a far smaller number will already suffice. As a corollary we have also argued that India does not need more fissile material for defence purposes.

Given this, asking for more weaponmaking capacity in the form of an unsafeguarded breeder reactor and eight other heavy water reactors is bound to raise speculations that India has a much larger arsenal in mind than what minimal deterrence really needs. Rough estimates show that the breeder alone will produce around 20 weapons-worth of high quality plutonium every year, the precise number depending on technicalities regarding its uranium blanket. Why do we need so many more weapons than the hundred for which we already have fissile material?

Regardless of whether or not the nuclear deal is accepted by the US Congress and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, this impression that India plans to expand its arsenal has the potential to increase nuclear dangers in our region. This is a great pity because I don’t think India went in for the nuclear deal in order to enable such a large expansion of its arsenal. Nor, as far as I can tell, it has any plans of doing so.

If this impression about our using the nuclear deal to significantly enlarge our nuclear arsenal is indeed wrong (and I hope it is) it would be wise for us to reassure the world that the deal has not

Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006

altered our policy of minimal deterrence. This needs to be repeated at the highest levels. That would not only reassure Pakistan and China that we have not escalated our nuclear plans, but would also signal to our own nuclear hawks that the success of the national security argument in negotiating the nuclear deal is not an open licence for building an unnecessarily large and dangerous arsenal.

To voluntarily cap its nuclear arsenal and then work towards eventual full disarmament in our continent would be the most enlightened course of action for India.



Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006

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