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Ruminations on India and Pakistan

By Paul Leventhal

On Monday morning, May 11, I was logging onto American Online to check my e- mail when I spotted a news bulletin about India's resumption of nuclear testing. My mind immediately flashed back to a telephone call I had received on another May morning 24 years earlier when I was a young staffer on the U.S. Senate Government Operations Committee. It was from a Congressional liaison officer of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission who said he was calling to inform me that India had just conducted a nuclear test and to assure me that "the United States had absolutely nothing to do with it."

At that time, I was working on legislation to reorganize the AEC into separate regulatory and promotional agencies. I had begun investigating the weapons potential of nuclear materials being used in the U.S. Atoms for Peace program, both at home and abroad. The official wanted me to know there was no need to consider remedial legislation on nuclear exports because the plutonium used in India's test came not from the safeguarded nuclear power plant at Tarapur, supplied by the United States, but from the unsafeguarded Cirus research reactor near Bombay, supplied by Canada. "This is a Canadian problem, not ours," he said.

It took me two years to discover that the information provided me that day was false. The United States, in fact, had supplied the essential heavy-water component that made the Cirus reactor operable, but decided to cover up the American supplier role and let Canada "take the fall" for the Indian test. Canada promptly cut off nuclear exports to India, but the United States did not.

In 1976, when the Senate committee uncovered the U.S. heavy-water export to India and confronted the State Department on it, the government's response was another falsehood: the heavy water supplied by the U.S., it said, had leaked from the reactor at a rate of 10% a year, and had totally depleted over 10 years by the time India produced the plutonium for its test.

But the committee learned from Canada that the actual heavy-water loss rate at Cirus was less than 1% a year, and we learned from junior-high-school arithmetic that even a 10%- a-year loss rate doesn't equal 100% after 10 years. Actually, more than 90% of the original U.S. heavy water was still in the Cirus reactor after 10 years, even if it took India a decade to produce the test plutonium---itself a highly fanciful notion.

We also learned that the reprocessing plant where India had extracted the plutonium from Cirus spent fuel, described as "indigenous" in official U.S. and Indian documents, in fact had been supplied by an elaborate and secret consortium of U.S. and European companies.

Faced with this blatant example of the Executive Branch taking Congress for the fool, the Senate committee drafted and Congress eventually enacted the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978. The original legislation was watered down in negotiations with representatives of Presidents Ford and Carter---presidents who were as dense to proliferation dangers as President Clinton is proving himself today---but the final law more or less accomplished two things:

First, it established acceptance of "full-scope safeguards" as a condition of nuclear supply (meaning the U.S. could no longer supply nuclear reactors and fuel to India and other countries that refused to accept international inspections on all of their nuclear activities).

Second, it required "case-by-case approval" of the extraction of plutonium from U.S.- supplied nuclear fuel (meaning the U.S. could bar production of plutonium in weapons-usable form from the fuel and reactors it supplied other countries).

Of course, enactment of this law put the United States out of step with the rest of the nuclear world, and howls of outrage were heard not only from India but from our European and Japanese allies.

These were the heady days of grandiose plans for a world of thousands of nuclear power plants---most of them to be "breeders" that would produce more plutonium fuel than they consumed---and of multi-billion-dollar deals: French plans to export reprocessing plants to Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan; Germany's pact to supply reactors, enrichment and reprocessing plants to Brazil; U.S. and European plans to provide the Shah of Iran with all the reactors and reprocessing plants he wanted; and Japan's plan to achieve energy independence by acquiring more plutonium than contained in the arsenals of the superpowers.

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose small cadre of inspectors didn't have a prayer of a chance to apply effective safeguards on worldwide plutonium commerce, followed the orders of its industry-dominated Board of Governors and kept its mouth shut. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty--- with its seamless arrangement of assured nuclear supply built upon pledges from the non-weapon states not to produce nuclear weapons and from the weapon states to negotiate in good faith to get rid of theirs---would take care of all problems.

Thus, Iraq could get its reactors and bomb-grade uranium fuel from France and Russia, Libya its nuclear research center from Russia, North Korea its reactor and fuel-cycle technology from Russia and the IAEA. They all were regarded as members in good standing of the NPT. And Western Europe and Japan could shift their plutonium industries into high gear, creating a global glut in plutonium that electrical utility companies neither want nor need.

These personal ruminations on times past perhaps provide some useful context for the debate raging today over whether "sanctions work"---a debate set off by the shock waves from India's second round of nuclear tests and then by Pakistan's nuclear tests. There is nothing new about this debate. Only the terms have changed.

In the 1970s, when restrictive U.S. non-proliferation laws (including the Symington and Glenn Amendments) were enacted and when the permissive NPT (including the associated IAEA and EURATOM safeguards regime and nuclear-suppliers guidelines) came into force, the debate was over whether nuclear proliferation could be "prevented" or simply "managed." Then the prevailing wisdom was that of course management was realistic and prevention counter-productive; today the prevailing judgment is that sanctions have been a dismal failure---indeed maybe they even aggravated a newly nationalistic India to set off nuclear explosions to put the western powers, and China, in their place.

Well, forgive an old-fashioned and unreconstructed non-proliferator of the prevention school for snickering, with sadness. The greatest non-proliferation successes---Argentina, Brazil and South Africa---are all examples of where sanctions were applied, and worked. These were rare cases in which prevention (and in the case of South Africa, roll-back) was given a chance. The greatest non-proliferation failures---India, Pakistan and Iraq---are all examples of where sanctions and prevention approaches were eventually undercut by management approaches dictated by higher priorities.

U.S. efforts to block Pakistan from completing its nuclear-weapons program all but evaporated in the higher interest of winning Pakistan's cooperation in rooting the Soviets out of Afghanistan. U.S. non-proliferation efforts aimed at Iraq were compromised in the higher interest of supporting Saddam Hussein as a U.S. surrogate against Iran.

India is perhaps America's greatest non-proliferation blunder because erosion of the prevention approach was dictated not by some over-arching, national-security interest but by commercial interests anxious to gain access to India's markets and by supposed wise men who concluded that carrots, not sticks, provided the best access to India's nuclear soul. Also, the U.S. tilt toward China (including the recent activation of the 1985 nuclear-cooperation agreement with China based on a wishful certification of China's non-proliferation credentials!), apparently was done without so much as a thought of what impact this might have on India.

India took the full measure of the United States---weighing U.S. offers of "confidence building measures" (from the Council on Foreign Relations, the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Secretary of State, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and the President's National Security Advisor) against the sanctions embodied in U.S. non- proliferation law---and built confidence that it could resume nuclear testing and get away with it. Judging by the clamor from U.S. bankers and exporters to lift or limit the sanctions, and by the refusal of European allies to impose sanctions of their own, India (and then Pakistan) may have sized up the situation correctly.

Beyond India and Pakistan's impetuous tests, the consequences of America's colossal policy failure remain to be seen. Some way must be found to cap and eventually roll back both countries' nuclear weapons programs, and use of the sanctions stick is now called for. The harsh economic sanctions required by U.S. law are the best means to stimulate strong domestic opposition in India and Pakistan to further nuclear tests and to further deployment of nuclear weapons. Otherwise, the nuclear arms race is likely to accelerate in a troubled region where nuclear deterrence may not work.

To those Indians and Pakistanis who insist that mutual deterrence can work as well for them as for the Americans and the Russians, I remind them---in the context of Kashmir today---what the historical record now teaches would have happened if the United States had attacked Cuba in 1962. We now know that if President Kennedy had chosen to attack, Soviet commanders in Cuba were under orders from Premier Khrushchev to launch nuclear missiles against the United States.

Kashmir is today's Cuba. A miscalculation by India or Pakistan in this theater of two bloody wars between them could result in the unthinkable calamity that the United States and Russia barely avoided during the Cuban missile crisis.

Beyond the consequences for the immediate region, the damage to global non- proliferation efforts may be incalculable. Will the Indian and Pakistani tests set off a second wave of proliferation not seen since the end of World War II? What are Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Libya thinking right now---especially if President Clinton fails to marshal an international consensus to punish rather than reward India and Pakistan? What are Germany and Japan thinking for the long term? How meaningful are the peaceful-use assurances for the thousands of tons of plutonium being born in civilian nuclear powerplants? What is the future of the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? Stay tuned.

The nuclear proliferation dangers we face today are largely the result of a bureaucratic-industrial complex that, to paraphrase American humorist Will Rogers, never met a nuclear deal it didn't like. One current example is supplying expensive, proliferation- prone, light-water reactors to North Korea rather than cheap, efficient (and safe) gas turbines. Another is the painfully slow and wrongheaded U.S. and Russian approach to nuclear disarmament: to run surplus warhead plutonium as fuel through nuclear power plants rather than simply to dispose of it directly as waste---thereby rewarding the European and Japanese plutonium industries for their defiance of U.S. anti-plutonium policy.

When I got into the nuclear non-proliferation business a quarter-century ago, David Lilienthal, first chairman of the AEC, gave me this advice: "If we assume nuclear proliferation to be inevitable, of course it will be." I was filled with hope that the United States could use its extraordinary power and influence in the world to prevent the inevitable. It's a discouraging business.

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