The Cost of the Bomb

Published on
by
the Guardian/UK

The Cost of the Bomb

by
Randeep Ramesh

After the hoopla of 60th birthday celebrations, the bubbly tastes a trifle flat in New Delhi. Instead of cheer, the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, finds himself duffed up by the left and the right over the Indo-US nuclear deal.

Mr Singh, a cerebral economist, says the pact is a triumph of diplomacy, a partnership between democracies. His detractors say it sells-out to Washington, infringing on India's sovereignty. MPs in the parliament have barracked and heckled the prime minister. The left threatens to pull the plug on the government.

The deal is a landmark one: India exists outside of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which came into force in 1968 and declared five states - the UK, France, America, the USSR and China - to keep nuclear weapons and others to benefit from civilian nuclear technology.

India, which tested nuclear devices in 1974 and 1998, calls this treaty a version of diplomatic apartheid - one rule for a select few, another for the rest. However, the deal offers India a way out of this prison: in return for a separation of military and civilian facilities and an inspection regime, New Delhi gets a nuclear supply-line.

This is an exceptional offer. Brazil and South Africa had to give up their weapons before export controls were lifted. Japan and South Korea, which had the fissile material and the know-how to make a bomb, as well as a threat in the form of North Korea, were also similarly caged.

All these nations, and dozens of others in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, are likely to give the nod to adjust the non-proliferation regime to accommodate India's desire for access to nuclear technology.

There are two considerations here: one is resource the other technology. India has an innovative nuclear programme, a three-stage sequence that uses the country's abundant mineral thorium in a fast-breeder reactor to produce energy. It is highly experimental and, under current international law, impossible for India to work with the two other countries, France and Russia, which have developed such technologies.

In terms of resource, India overestimated its uranium reserves and did not stockpile natural uranium when it could. Under the terms of the NPT, India is banned from buying uranium from the international market. That is why Australia's decision to sell New Delhi uranium, as long as the Indo-US nuclear deal goes through, is a historic one.

So, given all the upsides, why is the Indian prime minister facing brickbats rather than bouquets? Because India's pursuit of nuclear weapons has led it to the ultimate weapon: a megaton thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb.

India claims to have tested a low-yield thermonuclear device in 1998, but many seriously doubt this assertion. As the Americans and Soviets learnt in the 1950s, exploding a hydrogen bomb - which fuses rather than splits atoms - leads to uncontrollable and devastating ecological results.

These weapons led to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction and a slew of arms control agreements. The only states allowed to test nuclear weapons remain the five stipulated by the NPT. India is outside. While New Delhi is not in first class it has been upgraded while the other rogue states Pakistan and Israel are left without tickets.

The question is whether the long-term gain of testing a thermonuclear device is enough that India today might sacrifice short-term gains. But what are the circumstances that such a weapon is needed? They are not visible at the moment: no threat from China, none from Pakistan.

The future may herald a nuclear Middle East as Iran gets the bomb and others follow. Proliferation on such a scale is panicky stuff - enough for uber-realist Henry Kissinger to cite India's Rajiv Gandhi and call for a joint enterprise to rid the world of nuclear weapons earlier this year.

Mr Gandhi, addressing the UN general assembly in 1988, said: "Nuclear war will not mean the death of a hundred million people. Or even a thousand million. It will mean the extinction of four thousand million: the end of life as we know it on our planet earth. We come to the United Nations to seek your support. We seek your support to put a stop to this madness." This is fine sentiment that went unheeded at the time and led the world to dangerous waters.

If craziness were to descend, India's decision would be to sacrifice its new nuclear status for the right to acquire a thermonuclear device. The appalling judgment would be one for a government of the future, not today. As Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian statesman advised, "no nation is obliged to sacrifice its existence on the altar of treaty fidelity."

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007.

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