"The Buddha is smiling," read a coded cable sent in the early morning hours of May 18, 1974, to the Indian government in New Delhi. India had successfully exploded an atomic bomb. It thus became the sixth member of the nuclear bomb club, and the only member to have used plutonium from a civilian nuclear program -- in this case, a Canadian-supplied research reactor with American-supplied coolant.
The explosion ripped about U.S. non-proliferation policy. Pakistan, India's rival to the north, announced it would finance an atomic bomb even if "its people had to eat grass or leaves, or go hungry." Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, Turkey, Spain, South Africa and other countries announced expanded civilian programs with the unstated intent to develop "peaceful" nuclear explosives -- the euphemism India attached to its atomic test.
India's explosion was a major test for non-proliferation policy. Canada moved swiftly to cut off all nuclear cooperation with India as punishment for diverting the peaceful atom to explosive use. The United States chose to continue selling enriched uranium, reactor parts, maintenance services and other forms of nuclear cooperation in the hope of negotiating assurances that no further tests would occur. The U.S. decision proved to be a large mistake.
Six years have passed. The U.S. negotiations with India have been an obvious failure. India has not accepted international controls and inspections, has not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and has explicity stated that it many conduct future atomic experiments, regardless of U.S. opinion. The back of India's hand has been offered to U.S. pleadings on nuclear tests.
There is hope for change. A major congressional debate is brewing over U.S. proliferation policy toward India. The president and the State Department will square off against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and members of Congress in a political donnybrook over U.S. efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
At iissue are two 200-megawatt reactors in the Tarapur Atomic Power Station just north of Bombay on the arid coast of the Arabian Sea. The Tarapur rectors, sited at a small fishing village, were built by General Electric and Bechtel and financed by U.S. AID dollars. They have been operating since 1969 and are the largest reactors in Asia. Utilization of over 200 tons of U.S.-supplied enriched uranium as fuel at Tarapur has created a byproduct of 1,500 pounds of plutonium for India -- enough plutonium for hundreds of atomic bombs.
On May 16, 1980, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted unanimously to disapprove export licenses for 38 additional tons of enriched uranium (about two years' supply of fuel) destined for the Tarapur reactors. The Commission determined that the shipment did not meet the criteria of the Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 because of India's persistent refusal to open its nuclear facilities to international inspection and guarantee that U.S.-supplied material would not be used for nuclear explosions -- "peaceful" or otherwise.
The president may override the NRC decision and approve the shipment of uranium to India by executive order. Under the language of the Non-Proliferation Act, both houses of Congress may then vote to override the president and approve or disapprove the shipment. The State Department has apparently successfully urged the president to sidestep his strong non-proliferation policy and approve the shipment to India because of "foreign policy" considerations.
It is my personal view that the Indian shipment should not, and will not, go forward. A bipartisan alliance of congressmen has joined me in a letter sent to the president in opposition to the Indian shipment. Democrats such as Mo Udall Jonathan Bingham, Benjamin Rosenthal and George Brown, along with Republicans such as Dave Stockman, Jack Kemp, Mickey Edwards and John Buchanan, jointly signaled their objections. The letter concludes:
"Since India is the only known country to have exploded a nuclear device using nuclear materials from a civilian program, and since India steadfastly asserts its right to future atomic tests, we urge you to draw the line with India and support the NRC decision to deny shipment of uranium fuel."
The State Department will argue that can cannot afford to offend India because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- that it is better to acquiesce than to anger Prime minister Gandhi. However, the recent billion-dollar arms deal signed with the Russians shows that India will keep close ties with the Soviet camp regardless of the enriched uranium shipment.
A second State Department argument, used ever since the days of John Foster Dulles, is that nuclear proliferation is inevitable -- that the genie is out of the bottle -- and nothing the United States can do will prevent a determined country from acquiring nuclear weapons. To a certain extent, the State Department is correct. Damage has been done. For 30 years the United States has spread atomic hardware and expertise around the globe without adequate goals.
It is not too late, however, for the United States to reverse the damage done. A new, tougher policy on non-proliferation should emerge from the administration, starting with India. Nuclear cooperation should be halted immediately with any country that has not agreed to give up all experiments with atomic explosions. No more enriched uranium, no more heavy water, no more reactor sales, no more advisory services and no more financial assistance for nuclear projects should be allowed until India makes a firm commitment to dismantle its atomic testing program. The same strict standard should then be applied to Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Israel, Spain, Taiwan and Turkey if they continue to refuse a pledge of "no nuclear explosives." Countries must be shown that nuclear proliferation will cost them dearly.
If we do not strictly apply sanctions against countries such as India that have manufactured nuclear explosives from civilian activities, then we face a collapse of U.S. non-proliferation policy. Our opposition to the spread of atomic bombs will be ignored by country after country. Nuclear threats could emanate from virtually every region of the world.