India’s Big Emerging Market Poses Nuclear Risk

On a January visit to promote U.S. trade, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown spoke at one of India’s leading rocket and missile development sites. The Indian Institute of Science is developing rockets big enough to carry nuclear warheads throughout Asia and eventually the world. The Institute is a poor choice for U.S. trade promotion because U.S. companies can’t sell freely to India as long as it is building the bomb.

Selling to Larsen and Toubro, India’s engineering and construction giant, presents the same problem. The company makes ships, sports stadiums and medical equipment, but also builds nuclear reactors that produce plutonium free for use in atomic bombs. (The top contributors to India’s nuclear program are listed on pages six and seven.)

Even the safety of India’s power reactors is being undermined by its weapon program. Westinghouse has asked the U.S. Department of Energy for permission to tutor India in “severe accident management.” But the request “is not going anywhere for a while,” one U.S. official told the Risk Report, in part because of fear that India would train operators from its uninspected reactors, contrary to U.S. policy.

India’s drive for the bomb has made South Asia the most likely place on earth for a nuclear war. Pakistan has followed India’s nuclear progress step by step, increasing the chance that the next border conflict could turn nuclear.

The U.S. government now estimates that India has enough weapon-ready plutonium for about twenty bombs, a senior U.S. official told the Risk Report. The good news is that this is much lower than the widely assumed number of over fifty bombs, based on India’s production of high-quality plutonium (see plutonium table page five). Pakistan is thought to possess about a dozen bombs.

“We have told Pakistan that the difference in size between the Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenals is not strategically significant,” the official said.

The bad news for exporters is that India is still building bombs and has a history of converting civilian imports to military use. Canada supplied India’s first large reactor, called Cirus, in 1960. The United States supplied the “heavy water” to run it. Heavy water looks and even tastes like ordinary water but is used to run reactors that make plutonium, the material used in the Nagasaki bomb. India had promised Canada to restrict Cirus to “peaceful use,” but India used Cirus’ plutonium to build and explode a bomb in 1974. To justify its action, India called the bomb a “peaceful nuclear device.” Canada broke off nuclear relations.

By 1982, India’s nuclear effort was paralyzed by a shortage of heavy water. Fires and explosions at its production plants cut India’s output to a trickle (see heavy water graph page 8). Imports were the only solution. That was easy if India agreed to international inspection, so that the plutonium its reactors made could not go into atomic bombs. The exporters of heavy water require such a pledge under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). But India wanted to keep the nuclear weapon option open, so it refused the pledge. Instead, India found a German nuclear-materials broker who smuggled enough heavy water to start three large reactors. The secret shipments allowed India to escape international controls for the first time and change the strategic balance in Asia.

India bought other bomb-building equipment in the mid-1980s. From Sweden it obtained flash X-ray machines, used to photograph the implosive shock waves in a nuclear detonation package. From the West German firm Degussa it obtained 95 kilograms of U.S.-origin beryllium, needed in the core of atomic bombs to increase the yield.

In 1987, India revealed its interest in more powerful fusion reactions by announcing that it was studying the separation of lithium isotopes. India also began to enrich uranium, but in quantities too small for reactor fuel. This created the suspicion that India wanted it to detonate the fuel in fusion weapons. In 1989, CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) Director William Webster told Congress that India appeared to be designing a hydrogen bomb. In 1993 his successor, James Woolsey, testified that Webster’s assessment was “still valid.”

Despite these ominous developments, U.S. diplomats see hope for progress. A senior official told the Risk Report that recent U.S.-India nuclear talks have been “far more businesslike.” The desire of both countries for expanded trade has created an interest in “progress around the edges,” he said. “India is sending signals that it wants to deescalate.”

Meanwhile, India continues to shop for equipment and technology to increase its bomb-making potential (see shopping list page 9). Exporters hoping to sell to India’s vast opening market need to choose their partners carefully.


Nuclear weapon capability: Conducted nuclear test in 1974
Potential number of bombs: 20-50, with enough uninspected plutonium to make scores more
Missile delivery: Nuclear-capable Prithvi and Agni missiles
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT): Not a member
Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG): Not a member
Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR): Not a member
Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC): Signed but not ratified
Gross nuclear electrical power capacity: 2,035 megawatts