Is India Dodging Nuclear Controls?

The New York Times
September 8, 1986, p. A23

Do controls on nuclear exports really work? Or are they just a veil behind which nations buy and sell the means to make atomic bombs? India is now forcing these questions on the world. India has either diverted nuclear material from international inspection or imported it secretly from China and is using it to increase dramatically its ability to build a nuclear arsenal.

The material at issue is heavy water (deuterium oxide). It is needed to create a chain reaction in India’s reactors fueled by natural uranium.

India asserts that its three newest reactors – two at Madras and one at Trombay – are being operated exclusively with Indian-produced heavy water. Thus, India argues, it should not be subject to the same international controls on heavy water that India has imported from Canada, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Under controls of the International Atomic Energy Agency, plutonium made by a reactor using imported heavy water is restricted to peaceful uses and open to inspection. By asserting the water is not imported, India could use the plutonium from its reactors to make atomic bombs.

So far, India says it has accumulated only small amounts of plutonium and pledges to use it only for peaceful purposes. The new reactors, however, would not be subject to such a pledge and could produce enough plutonium for 15 bombs a year.

The problem is that India has never made enough heavy water to run these reactors without imports. An analysis of India’s heavy water needs, imports and production shows a staggering shortage unexplainable by possible error in data. In effect, India is now dishonestly running five reactors with barely enough heavy water to run three. It is either shifting safeguarded heavy water illegally to a reactor not covered by safeguards or getting secret imports.

India’s first reactor at Rajasthan – itself under international safeguards – is suspect. It has been closed each time India has started a new reactor outside such safeguards. At any of these times, the Rajasthan reactor’s safeguarded heavy water could have been diverted.

Secret imports could come from Canada, China, the United States or the Soviet Union. These are the only countries that export heavy water in the quantities India needed. But Canada cut off nuclear trade shortly after India detonated a ”peaceful nuclear device” in 1974. The Russians are bound by the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines not to export heavy water without safeguards. It is inconceivable that these countries would illegally supply water.

China is the only source remaining and the only supplier that accepts no restrictions. According to published accounts, China has supplied heavy water to Argentina without safeguards and a nuclear weapons design to Pakistan. It is also desperate for foreign exchange and scaled back its nuclear program for lack of it.

China has denied making exports to India, and India has denied receiving any. But India has also denied any diversion from safeguards and refused to provide data to back up the denial.

Canada, the United States and the Soviet Union cannot be sure their heavy water exports are not being used to make bombs. The remedy is to halt nuclear trade with India until the shortages are explained.

The United States should not sell India anything with a possible nuclear application, such as a supercomputer now under consideration. A Soviet cutoff of heavy water probably would prevent India from operating one or more of the new reactors it is now constructing.

These remedies, however, could all be defeated by secret shipments from China. China wants to import reactor technology and open its economy to the West. Rather than leap into the new market, foreign suppliers must first insist that China make internationally binding promises to change its export behavior.

If the United States and the Soviet Union acted, India’s program could be made accountable. If the suppliers acted as a group against China, it could be forced to accept a responsible export policy. If no one does anything, India can officially thumb its nose at the world and show that nuclear export controls don’t work.

Gary Milhollin is professor of law at the University of Wisconsin. This was adapted from an article in the fall issue of Foreign Policy.