Key Indian Figures Call for New Nuclear Tests Despite Deal With U.S.

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 5, 2009

NEW DELHI -- A little more than a year after India and the United States signed a historic civilian agreement lifting a 30-year ban on nuclear trade, some former top nuclear scientists here are arguing that India needs to conduct another weapons test.

The move would undoubtedly alarm nonproliferation advocates but would be needed for India to master the weapon and to ensure that it has a "credible nuclear deterrent" in its arsenal, according to two retired nuclear scientists.

One of the scientists, K. Santhanam, who coordinated India's nuclear weapons program when the country conducted five nuclear tests 11 years ago, has said that the original thermonuclear device test was a dud. That claim comes at a time when the idea of a universal test ban is gaining momentum under President Obama. Speaking last month at the United Nations, Obama called for the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by 2010.

Some Indian analysts say Santhanam is speaking for a powerful but small group of nuclear scientists, diplomats and military experts who wish to prevent Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from supporting Obama's call.

"Santhanam finally realized the enormity of consequences of India's never testing again," said Bharat Karnad, a member of the team that developed India's nuclear doctrine and a former member of the National Security Advisory Board. "It has to do with the perception that Manmohan Singh is predisposed to offer no resistance to Obama's nonproliferation policy push and may sign the CTBT. And that the government has to be stopped from doing this. It is, in fact, about keeping our testing option open."

Singh's government immediately distanced itself from Santhanam and reiterated its commitment to the moratorium on tests. But Karnad said the question "is not whether India will test, but when."

Last week, the former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission, P.K. Iyengar, also joined the chorus advocating more tests and said "nobody makes a weapon out of a single test."

Conducting a nuclear test would lead to the termination of the nuclear deal with the United States and would jeopardize fuel supplies. It would also flout India's voluntary moratorium on testing, declared in 1998.

"Santhanam and other Indian Dr. Strangeloves see this as a way to block progress toward disarmament and possibly get more nuclear testing going before it is too late," said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. "Indian testing would likely trigger additional Pakistani testing . . . and could even provoke a resumption of Chinese testing."

The five Indian tests in May 1998 prompted archrival Pakistan to conduct tests of its own.

Santhanam said that the hydrogen bomb tested in 1998 "completely failed to ignite" and that the shaft, the frame and the winches were found to be intact even after the tests. No crater was formed in the fusion test.

"If the second H-bomb stage of the composite device had worked, the shaft would have been blown to smithereens," he told reporters.

India's national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan, dismissed the scientist's statements as "horrific" and said researchers have verified the nation's thermonuclear capabilities.

Nonetheless, Santhanam's revelation has struck at the heart of Indian pride over its nuclear weapons capability. The Indian news magazine Outlook called Santhanam a "whistle-blower" and a "myth bomber." A tabloid, Mail Today, said he had poured "a bucket of cold water on the security establishment." Others dubbed him unpatriotic for undermining India's credibility.

Critics of Santhanam say that testing now would endanger India's rising prominence in international affairs and would invite sanctions that could hurt India's economic growth.

"The cost is intolerable if India tests," said Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary. "We will suffer international isolation. It will be a huge setback to our bid for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council."

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