India’s Back Door to the Atomic Club

The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 29, 1987, p. 22-A

Pakistan has been trying to smuggle its way to the atomic bomb, and has got caught. A Pakistani native is to be tried in Philadelphia for illegaly shipping bomb-making materials out of the United States. The out-cry, though justified, is drawing attention away from Pakistan’s neighbor India, which is trying to lawyer its way to the bomb. India’s method may be worse.

India is now importing enriched uranium-reactor fuel under an agreement with the United States. India plans to convert all the plutonium made from that fuel to nuclear weapon status as soon as the plutonium is physically ready, which will be in about six years. Plutonium is the gray metal that made the world’s first nuclear explosion and destroyed Nagasaki.

India will make this conversion despite the fact that the U.S. agreement restricts the plutonium to peaceful use. India also plans to convert the two U.S.-supplied power reactors at Tarapur — which are receiving the fuel — from peaceful to military production status at the same time. If these plans succeed, India will be able to shift about 1,800 kilograms of plutonium to military status — enough for 225 atomic bombs.

India justifies all this by arguing that in six years, when the U.S. pledge to supply fuel to the Tarapur reactors ends, all other rights under the trade agreement end as well. This means that the entire stockpile of plutonium made by the reactors will leave international inspection, India’s pledge to restrict the plutonium to peaceful use will end, and so will India’s obligation not to transfer the plutonium to other countries or groups. India thus hopes to change the U.S. agreement into an option contract for bombs. India would get the bomb simply by performing the agreement to the end. India’s argument lacks any legal or plausible basis.

India is also hinting that it may immediately convert about 40 bombs’ worth of U.S. and Canadian-origin plutonium from peaceful to military status. The plutonium has been made by the CIRUS reactor, which Canada exported to India in the early 1960s. The United States exported the heavy water (deuterium oxide) needed to run the reactor. This conversion would boost enormously India’s military stockpile, which now consists of only six to 10 bombs’ worth of plutonium.

This conversion too violates a pledge of peaceful use — which India made to Canada to get the reactor, and to the United States to get the heavy water. After India exploded a bomb in 1974 with the CIRUS reactor’s plutonium — which India called a “peaceful nuclear device” — Canada ended nuclear trade with India.

However, Canada has never waived India’s right to peaceful use of the plutonium and neither has the United States. India is simply hoping that neither Canada nor the United States will enforce its rights. So far, India has been correct. Neither supplier is demanding that India acknowledge the pledge, nor abandon its plan to violate it.

The United States, Canada and other nuclear suppliers should act now to prevent India from breaking its word. If they don’t, the lack of enforcement will create a nuclear proliferation disaster. The additional plutonium will multiply the number of bombs India can make, weaken the credibility of export controls, and cripple the effort to restrain Pakistan.

There are clear remedies for Indian defiance. If India does acknowledge U.S. and Canadian rights, the United States should ask France to cut off the fuel supply to the Tarapur reactors. France is supplying the fuel under the U.S. trade agreement, and has agreed to follow U.S. instructions in the event of a dispute with India. This would shut down India’s largest supply of nuclear electricity.

If nuclear trade remedies are not enough, the United States can cease making high-technology exports to India, such as the technology for building computers and fighter-plane engines and can drop plans to sell the supercomputer that it wants.

As a last step, the United States — which is India’s largest trading partner — could use its power over international trade and lending. Canada could join in the trade remedies, and the Soviet Union, usually a solid supporter of nonproliferation, could stop exporting the heavy water that India needs to run all of its other nuclear reactors. If this were done, the Indian bomb would become an astronomically expensive substitute for the India nuclear power program, rather than a cheap adjunct to it. India might then see that it could become less, rather than more powerful by having atomic bombs.

Gary Milhollin is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. This is adapted from an article recently published in the American Journal of International Law.