THE NEW FIZZLE DEBATE - The nuclear question concerns everybody, not just scientists
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- Published 3.09.09
The nuclear debate in India, after a brief lull, promises to become stormy over the next months. The contest is once again, after over a decade, in essence over the merits and demerits of India signing the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty or CTBT. A former senior official of the Defence Research and Development Organisation has proved to be the catalyst and a whistle-blower. At a closed-door seminar in the capital, where the Chatham House Rules were flouted with impunity, the official declared that the thermonuclear test India conducted in 1988 was a fizzle. A fizzle, in nuclear jargon, is another term for a test that has not delivered, at least not in terms of the expected yield. The implication was clear: India should not consider signing the CTBT because we still need to conduct further tests to ensure the credibility of the country’s nuclear deterrent. While the government has sought to distance itself from the controversy, it is clear that this is an issue that cannot be swept under the carpet. What is needed, therefore, is an independent panel of scientists and analysts who can address the issue of the thermonuclear test and the wider implications for India, its nuclear deterrent, and its engagement with the CTBT. All this needs fleshing out.
The CTBT was adopted by the United Nations general assembly in September, 1996. About 150 States have ratified the CTBT and another 32 States have signed but not yet ratified it. But the treaty cannot come into force unless the 44 States listed in Annex 2 of the treaty have ratified it. Nine of these States have not ratified the treaty, including India, China, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States of America. During the Bush years, the CTBT was not an issue: the Republican administration believed more in direct action than in multilateral arms control, and the treaty was pushed into cold storage. The Obama administration is, however, different.
At Prague in April, Obama committed himself to radical steps on arms control and disarmament; it seems his administration has decided to make the ratification of the CTBT a cornerstone of its foreign policy. In other words, Washington will begin exercising serious pressure on the non-signatories, even as they build a consensus on ratification domestically.
The India story, however, is, as usual, more intriguing. On September 10, 1996, at the UN general assembly, India’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Arundhati Ghose, and a bhadramahila with a greater spine than most Indian diplomats, said: “Mr President, I would like to declare on the floor of this august assembly that India will never sign this unequal treaty, not now, nor later.” The reasons, on the face of it, were simple: India had been included in Annex 2, without its consent, the draft had been negotiated outside the conference on disarmament (where India blocked a consensus) and that the treaty was not explicitly linked to a plan for disarmament which India had demanded. But there was a deeper, less diplomatic, reality. India needed time: to be able to conduct nuclear tests at an opportune time when the international backlash could be contained, so essential to build a credible nuclear posture. This happened less than two years later.
On May 11 and 13, 1988, India conducted five nuclear tests at Pokhran. All the tests were then declared totally successful. Recall the statement issued by the official spokesman on May 11: “The tests conducted today were with a fission device, a low yield device and a thermonuclear device. The measured yields are in line with expected values. Measurements have also confirmed that there was no release of radioactivity into the atmosphere.”
India quickly declared a unilateral moratorium on further testing, and New Delhi’s back channels seriously discussed signing the CTBT (as a way of normalizing relations and getting sanctions, imposed in the wake of the tests, lifted) with their American counterparts, but the Clinton administration was beset with its own problems. Then came the trouble-free Bush years. In March this year, however, the prime minister’s special envoy, Shyam Saran, said at a conference at the Brookings Institution at Washington: “It is also our conviction that if the world really moves categorically towards nuclear disarmament in a credible timeframe, then India-US differences over the CTBT will probably recede into the background.” Why are we then witnessing this hullabaloo? For at least three reasons.
First, many consider thermonuclear or hydrogen weapons essential for building a credible deterrent. While this is debatable in terms of Indian nuclear deterrence strategy, there has always been scepticism about the thermonuclear claim. Days after the test, both the Central Intelligence Agency and the international scientific academic community expressed reservations. The well known nuclear-seismologist, then at the University of Arizona, Terry C. Wallace, openly rubbished India’s claims on the basis of detailed seismic analyses. In India, P.K. Iyengar, a former chief of the department of atomic energy, also doubted the official claim.
In response, the Indian atomic science establishment published its findings. Key figures of the atomic energy establishment, S.K. Sikka, Falguni Roy. and G.J. Nair, argued - in a referred paper — rather naïvely it now seems — that large variations in the seismic magnitude were because of the “cancellation and superimposition of signals from these explosions separated in space by about 1 km”. The DRDO official’s assertion implies that Sikka et al were, at the very least, magnifying their achievements.
But we must not overlook the traditional rivalry between institutions and individuals. All nuclear States have had rivalries within driven by personal idiosyncrasies and institutional loyalties. The famous rivalry between Edward Teller (the father of the hydrogen bomb) and J. Robert Oppenheimer (the leader of the Manhattan Project which produced the first atomic weapons) is legendary and irretrievably divided the two main American nuclear labs: Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore. When Oppenheimer opposed the hydrogen bomb, Teller accused him of being a Soviet spy.
In India, the rivalry between the atomic energy establishment and the DRDO is well known. Raja Ramanna openly expressed his uneasiness at the elevation of a well known rocket scientist to a high position. In the Atomic Energy Commission itself, nuclear scientists have looked down upon nuclear engineers — the traditional innovators’ contempt for mechanics. Two chairmen of the AEC, Raja Ramanna, a nuclear scientist, and Homi Sethna, a nuclear engineer, had always had an uneasy relationship.
Finally, of course, there are institutional interests. No organization will seek to undermine its own raison d’être. In the US, when the Clinton administration sought the support of the nuclear laboratories for the CTBT, they had to be almost bribed. As the physicist, Richard Garwin, described it: “What could they get? Sandia got the microelectronics research center, which had minimal relevance to the CTBT. Los Alamos got the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility. Livermore got the National Ignition Facility— the white elephant eating us out of house and home.”
The fact is that we need oversight by an independent authority. In the US, there were at least two panels which, in recent years, addressed issues related to the CTBT and inter-institutional rivalry. In 1995, an Energy Advisory Board Task Force on Alternative Futures for the Department of Energy National Laboratories was set up. The panel concluded that while some of the finest scientific research in America was done in the national laboratories, “the current system of governance of these laboratories is broken and should be replaced with a bold alternative”. An earlier committee, which remains a model, is the bipartisan JASON committee, consisting of top research and industrial scientists. One of its most important reports was on safety, reliability, and performance margins of nuclear weapons in the wake of a possible CTBT. We need to recognize that the nuclear question is too important to be left to scientists or the armed forces alone. It concerns us all.