India Cancels Nuclear Test; Empties Test Site

India has removed essential diagnostic equipment from its nuclear test site at Pokharan (Pokhran), U.S. intelligence officials say, indicating that the Indian government has abandoned its plan to conduct a nuclear weapon test.

As recently as October 1996, reconnaissance photos of the Pokharan (Pokhran) site revealed what U.S. officials believed were final preparations for India’s second nuclear test. India conducted its first test in 1974. India had positioned trailers containing diagnostic equipment at the site and had run cables down a shaft to pick up signals from an underground nuclear test chamber.

By mid-December, however, the trailers had been withdrawn. Intelligence officials now say that they have concluded, based on information in addition to the reconnaissance photographs, that the Indian government has made a political decision not to carry out a test. The officials believe that India was motivated by fear of the possible international reaction. “When you tiptoe up to the brink and look over, you don’t always like what you see,” one official said.

U.S. law mandates stiff penalties against a “non-nuclear weapon state”–India is so defined–that “detonates a nuclear explosive device.” The law would cut off U.S. foreign aid, U.S. bank loans to the Indian government, federal financing of U.S. exports to India (a credit line of around $150 million per year), and would require the United States to vote against India’s loans at the World Bank, now averaging two billion dollars per year. The law would also bar India from receiving sensitive dual-use nuclear, missile and chemical technology, which India needs to modernize its industry and armed forces.

In explaining India’s decision, U.S. officials also cited the large amount of financial assistance that India receives from Japan, assistance that could have been jeopardized by a nuclear test. When asked whether the United States had encouraged Japan to use the assistance as a lever against India, one official said, “that would be a logical step.”

India’s decision appears to have avoided a retaliatory test by Pakistan. Pakistani officials have told the press that Pakistan would be compelled to test if India did. And a U.S. official, who asked not to be identified, told the Risk Report that Pakistani scientists have already taken the steps necessary to detonate a bomb quickly following an Indian test. A Pakistani nuclear test would subject Pakistan to the same sanctions as India under U.S. law.

India’s decision could also have been influenced by its recent defeats in the United Nations. On September 10, the General Assembly adopted a comprehensive test ban by a vote of 158 to 3. Only India, Libya and Bhutan, a country whose foreign policy India controls, voted against it. And on October 23, Japan defeated India by more than a three-to-one margin in an election to fill a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. A large number of developing nations chose Japan in what an Indian newspaper called “a battle between India’s principles and Japan’s moneybags.” These successive rejections, said a U.S. official, showed India that it would risk becoming a pariah state if it went through with a nuclear test.

India is believed to have approximately 20 to 50 first-generation atomic bombs in its nuclear arsenal, compared to approximately a dozen for Pakistan. India’s bombs are assumed to be fueled by plutonium produced in reactors based on Canadian designs and operated with material imported from China, Norway, the former Soviet Union and the United States.