On the curious pre-9/11 quaintness of current criticism of India’s 1998 nuclear tests

I said towards the end of my June 4-5 2006 article in The Statesman “Pakistan’s Allies”

“…America and its allies would not be safe for long since the civil war they had left behind in Afghanistan while trying to defeat the USSR now became a brew from which arose a new threat of violent Islamism. Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, whom Pakistan’s military and the USA had promoted, now encouraged unprecedented attacks on the American mainland on September 11 2001 ~ causing physical and psychological damage which no Soviet, Chinese or Cuban missiles ever had been allowed to do….”

Earlier, in The Statesman of October 26 2005,  I had outlined a series of recent US espionage failures

“There have been three or four enormous failures of American espionage (i.e. intelligence and counter-intelligence) in the last 20 years. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of Soviet communism were salubrious events but they had not been foreseen by the United States which was caught unawares by the speed and nature of the developments that took place. Other failures have been catastrophic.

First, there was the failure to prevent the attack that took place on the American mainland on September 11 2001. It killed several thousand civilians and caused vast, perhaps irreparable, psychological and physical destruction to the United States. The attack was without precedent. The December 7 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, though a surprise, was carried out by one military against another military and did not affect very many civilians (except that thousands of American civilians of Japanese ancestry came to be persecuted and placed in concentration camps for years by the US Government). And the last time the American mainland had been attacked before 2001 was in 1814 when British troops marched south from Canada and burnt down the Capitol and the US President’s house in Washington.

Secondly, there has been a failure to discover any reasonable justification for the American-led attack on Iraq and its invasion and occupation. Without any doubt, America has lost, at the very least, an incalculable amount of international goodwill as a result of this, let aside suffering two thousand young soldiers killed, fifteen thousand wounded, and an unending cost in terms of prestige and resources in return for the thinnest of tangible gains. India at great cost liberated East Pakistan from the brutal military tyranny of Yahya Khan and Tikka Khan in December 1971 but the average Bangladeshi today could hardly care less. Regardless of what form of government emerges in Iraq now, there is no doubt the mass of the Iraqi people will cheer the departure of the bulk of foreign troops and tanks from their country (even if a permanent set of a dozen hermetically sealed American bases remain there for ever, as appears to have been planned).

When things go wrong in any democracy, it is natural and healthy to set up a committee to investigate, and America has done that several times now. For such committees to have any use at all they must be as candid as possible and perhaps the most candid of the American committees has been the US Government’s 9/11 Commission. But it too has appeared no closer to finding out who was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks or who financed it and who, precisely, executed it. Osama Bin Laden may have been the ideological head of a movement allied to the perpetrators, and Bin Laden undoubtedly expressed his glee afterwards, but it beggars the imagination that Bin Laden could have been executive president in charge of this operation while crawling around Sudan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. If not him, then whom? Mossad the Israeli spy agency was supposed to have pointed to a super-secret invisible Lebanese terrorist but nobody really knows. The biggest modern mass murder remains unsolved.

As for solutions, the American 9/11 Commission went into the same politically correct formulae that came to be followed in 2005 by British PM Tony Blair’s New Labour Cabinet, namely, that “moderate” peace-loving Muslims must be encouraged and bribed not to turn to terrorism (indeed to expose those among them who do), while “extremist” Muslims must be stamped out with brute force. This rests on a mistaken premise that an economic carrot-and-stick policy can work in creating a set of external incentives and disincentives for Muslims, when in fact believing Muslims, like many other religious believers, are people who feel the power of their religion deep within themselves and so are unlikely to be significantly affected by external incentives or disincentives offered by non-believers.  Another committee has been the United States Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence which reported in July 2004, and from whose findings have stemmed as an offshoot the current matter about whether high government officials broke the law that is being investigated by Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald.

Bertrand Russell said in his obituary of Ludwig Wittgenstein that he had once gone about looking under all the tables and chairs to prove to Wittgenstein that there was not a hippopotamus present in the room. In the present case, however, there is in fact a very large hippopotamus present in the room yet the entire American foreign policy establishment has seemed to refuse to wish to see it. Saddam Hussain and OBL are undoubtedly certifiable members of the international gallery of rogues – but the central fact remains they were rogues who were in alliance with America’s defined strategic interests in the 1980s. Saddam Hussain’s Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 and gassed the Kurds in 1986; an Iraqi Mirage on May 17 1987 fired two Exocet missiles at the USS Stark killing 37 American sailors and injuring 21. The Americans did nothing. The reason was that Saddam was still in favour at the time and had not yet become a demon in the political mythology of the American state, and it was expedient for nothing to be done. Indeed Saddam’s Iraq was explicitly removed in 1982 from the US Government’s list of states sponsoring terrorism because, according to the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism, it had “moved closer to the policies of its moderate Arab neighbours”.

The very large hippopotamus that is present in the room at the moment is April Glaspie, the highly regarded professional career diplomat and American Ambassador to Iraq at the time of the 1990 Gulf War. Saddam Hussein as President had a famous meeting with her on July 25 1990, eight days before he invaded Kuwait. The place was the Presidential Palace in Baghdad and the Iraqis videotaped the meeting:

U.S. Ambassador Glaspie – “I have direct instructions from President (George Herbert Walker) Bush to improve our relations with Iraq. We have considerable sympathy for your quest for higher oil prices, the immediate cause of your confrontation with Kuwait. (pause) As you know, I lived here for years and admire your extraordinary efforts to rebuild your country. We know you need funds. We understand that, and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. (pause) We can see that you have deployed massive numbers of troops in the south. Normally that would be none of our business, but when this happens in the context of your threats against Kuwait, then it would be reasonable for us to be concerned. For this reason, I have received an instruction to ask you, in the spirit of friendship – not confrontation – regarding your intentions: Why are your troops massed so very close to Kuwait’s borders?

Saddam Hussein – As you know, for years now I have made every effort to reach a settlement on our dispute with Kuwait. There is to be a meeting in two days; I am prepared to give negotiations only this one more brief chance. (pause) When we (the Iraqis) meet (with the Kuwaitis) and we see there is hope, then nothing will happen. But if we are unable to find a solution, then it will be natural that Iraq will not accept death.

U. S. Ambassador Glaspie – What solutions would be acceptable?

Saddam Hussein – If we could keep the whole of the Shatt al Arab – our strategic goal in our war with Iran – we will make concessions (to the Kuwaitis). But, if we are forced to choose between keeping half of the Shatt and the whole of Iraq (i.e., in Saddam’ s view, including Kuwait ) then we will give up all of the Shatt to defend our claims on Kuwait to keep the whole of Iraq in the shape we wish it to be. (pause) What is the United States’ opinion on this?

U.S. Ambassador Glaspie – We have no opinion on your Arab – Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary (of State James) Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960’s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America. (Saddam smiles)

Saddam had seen himself fighting Islamic Iran on behalf of the Kuwaitis, Saudis and other Arabs, and Islamic Iran was of course the sworn adversary of the USA at least since Khomeini had deposed America’s ally, the Shah. Therefore Saddam could not be all bad in the eyes of the State Department. On August 2 1990, the Iraqi troops seen by American satellites amassed on the border, invaded and occupied Kuwait. On September 2 1990, the Iraqis released the videotape and transcript of the July 29 Saddam-Glaspie meeting and Glaspie was confronted by British journalists as she left the Embassy:

Journalist 1 – Are the transcripts (holding them up) correct, Madam Ambassador? (No answer from Glaspie)

Journalist 2 – You knew Saddam was going to invade (Kuwait ) but you didn’t warn him not to. You didn’t tell him America would defend Kuwait. You told him the opposite – that America was not associated with Kuwait.

Journalist 1 – You encouraged this aggression – his invasion. What were you thinking?

U.S. Ambassador Glaspie – Obviously, I didn’t think, and nobody else did, that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait.

Journalist 1 – You thought he was just going to take some of it? But, how could you? Saddam told you that, if negotiations failed , he would give up his Iran(Shatt al Arab waterway) goal for the whole of Iraq, in the shape we wish it to be. You know that includes Kuwait, which the Iraqis have always viewed as a historic part of their country!

Journalist 1 – America green-lighted the invasion. At a minimum, you admit signalling Saddam that some aggression was okay – that the U.S. would not oppose a grab of the al-Rumeilah oil field, the disputed border strip and the Gulf Islands (including Bubiyan) – the territories claimed by Iraq?

Glaspie said nothing, the car door closed behind her, the car drove off. Nothing has been apparently heard from Glaspie ever since, and we may have to wait for her memoirs in 25 years when they are declassified to come to know what happened. It is astonishing, however, that the 521 page report of the US Senate’s Select Committee on espionage about Iraq before the 2003 war finds no cause whatsoever to mention Glaspie at all (at least in its public censored version). It is almost as if Glaspie has never existed and her conversation with Saddam never happened. Glaspie has disappeared down an Orwellian memory-hole. Yet her conversation with Saddam was the last official, recorded conversation between the Americans and Saddam while they were still on friendly terms.

There may be many causes explaining how such serious failures have come to occur in a country where billions of dollars have been annually spent on espionage. Among them must be that while America’s great strengths have included creation of the finest advanced scientific and technological base on earth, America’s great intellectual weaknesses in recent decades have included an impatience with historical and philosophical reflection of all sorts, and that includes reflection about her own as well as other cultures. This is exemplified too in the third palpable failure of intelligence of the last 20 years, which has been to have not foreseen or prevented atomic weapons from being developed by America and Britain’s Islamist ally and client-state, Pakistan, and thence to have failed to prevent the proliferation of such weapons in general. The consequences of that may yet turn out to be the most grave.”

Now as it happens, a couple of days ago, eleven years after the Government of India’s May 1998 underground nuclear tests at Pokhran, an Indian scientist who had something to do with them has engaged in a general discussion about the tests’ efficacy. Indian newspapers duly reported this as part of an ongoing domestic discussion about nuclear policy.

Oddly enough, there has been an instantaneous reaction from American critics of India’s nuclear activities – beginning with Dr Jeffrey Lewis:

“Yes, Virginia, India’s H-bomb fizzled.  K Santhanam (who was director of test site preparations for India’s 1998 nuclear tests… has admitted what everyone else has known for a long time — that India’s 1998 test of a thermonuclear device was unsuccessful.…”

Followed by Mark Hibbs:

“Is this cool or what? I remember what happened when I wrote that article in the fall of 1998 saying in the headline that the US had concluded that the Indian “H-Bomb failed.” Almost overnight after the article was published I got a huge bundle of papers from BARC and DAE sent to me by diplomatic pouch from Mumbai informing me with all kinds of numbers that I was wrong.  I gave the papers to laboratory geoscientists at several European countries and the US. One main CTBTO monitoring scientist told me explicitly: “Nope. The stuff in these papers is shitty science. They haven’t shown that you are wrong.” That having been said, please note however that, as PK Iyengar had made the case to me back a decade ago, once again this “news” is surfacing in India because their bomb makers want to keep testing. Some things in India are changing fast. Other things aren’t.”

Followed by Charles Mead:

“I got into a huge pissing match with the Indians on this issue as I was the principal author of Barker et. al. 1998 which had the yield estimates far below the Indian press releases. A number of Indian scientists tried to submit a comment to Science rebutting our analysis. We asked them to provide the in-country seismic data on which they based their analysis, but they refused. Luckily, in the end, their comment was rejected and never published.  On a related note, I saw the other day that wikipedia has a glowing description of the Indian 1998 tests, citing the inflated yields and saying the tests were a huge technical accomplishment. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pokhran-II In the next day or so, I plan to submit a corrected analysis.”

Mark Hibbs:

“Charles, I recall one of your co-authors back then explained to me in nitty-gritty detail your frustration on this with these guys. Please do correct the record for posterity.”

Charles Meade:

“Their arguments at the time were quite remarkable. They said that our seismic data didn’t reflect the true yield because of a complex interference pattern caused by the simultaneous tests. Under these circumstances, they said that one could only obtain the correct yield from near field data. We said, “fine, show it to us”. They refused and that was the end of their paper.”

Yale Simkin:

“The Indian argument: ‘For us to have a nuclear deterrent we must weaponise. For this, we must have fusion weapons, because these are smaller, lighter, and more efficient than fission weapons.’ is a lot of hooey.  They claim to be building a deterrent force, not a war-fighting arsenal with a counter-force capability.  For the size and mass of their likely early-generation fusion designs, they can instead use basic fission bombs yielding in the multi-dekakiloton range – multiples of the hell weapons that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  That should be sufficient to deter any rational adversary. And if they aren’t rational, then you have no deterrent.”

Hmmm.  The choice of terminology even within such a brief discussion might reveal a little of the mind-set: “shitty science”, “pissing match”, “a lot of hooey”…

Rather uncool, really.

Specifically:

“A number of Indian scientists tried to submit a comment to Science rebutting our analysis. We asked them to provide the in-country seismic data on which they based their analysis, but they refused. Luckily, in the end, their comment was rejected and never published…. Their arguments at the time were quite remarkable. They said that our seismic data didn’t reflect the true yield because of a complex interference pattern caused by the simultaneous tests. Under these circumstances, they said that one could only obtain the correct yield from near field data. We said, “fine, show it to us”. They refused and that was the end of their paper.

Hmmm — once more.  The words that I have placed in bold above might be prima facie evidence of incorrect and hence unfair editorial procedures having been followed at Science (distinguished as its general reputation may be as a journal).  Why were these here-unnamed “Indian scientists” not allowed to speak for themselves, rather than have their now-unknown statements be bowdlerised out of their critics’ memories a decade later (when these critics themselves had been the subject of the rebuttal)?  Perhaps the rebuttal should not have been refused publication even if it came with an editorial caveat that all the data deemed necessary had not been provided (which may have been the case, for example, due to a Government gag-order).  Readers today would have been able to judge for themselves.

I am happy to claim zero expertise in the field known rather sweetly as “Crater Morphology”; but post 9/11, post-Iraq war, it does seem to me a rather quaint form of prejudice to be using such words as those quoted above  in discussing the precise tonnage of the Indian explosions and how, really, India’s scientists were not up to it.  Perhaps,  when matters of public policy or international diplomacy become involved, science  everywhere is too important to be left to the scientists.

Are all the available data out there in the public domain on which to judge whether the Indian explosions in 1998 were or were not what was precisely claimed at the time?  Apparently not.

Does it matter to anything today?  Hardly.  Not even to the credibility of the Government of India (something on which I have had a lot to say over decades).

Do Governments lie?  Yes Virginia, they do.

Governments the world over, whether Indian, American, Russian, Chinese, British, French, Israeli, Arab, Pakistani or whatever, let aside inter-Governmental bodies constituted by these Governments, are prone to exaggeration, propaganda, self-delusion, self-deception as well as deliberate mendacity, perhaps routinely on a daily basis.

(For myself as an individual, I have had to battle the demonstrated and deliberate mendacity of the government of one of the fifty States in the US federal courts for two decades now, as told of elsewhere…)

An Age of Government Mendacity has seemed to descend upon the world — which makes the smugness expressed so quickly today by the critics of India’s 1998 explosions seem, as I have said, quaint.

Is the current Indian debate indicating something about keeping open the possibility of more tests and isn’t this related to the Indo-US civil nuclear deal?   It may well be, I do not know.  My position for what it is worth has been clear and described in several articles in The Statesman in recent years e.g.

1) Atoms for Peace (or War)  (March 5 2006)

“Atoms for Peace” was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 speech to the UN (presided over by Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister) from which arose the IAEA. Eisenhower was the warrior par excellence, having led the Allies to victory over Hitler a few years earlier.

Yet he was the first to see “no sane member of the human race” can discover victory in the “desolation, degradation and destruction” of nuclear war. “Occasional pages of history do record the faces of the ‘great destroyers’, but the whole book of history reveals mankind’s never-ending quest for peace and mankind’s God-given capacity to build.” Speaking of the atomic capacity of America’s communist adversary at the time, he said: “We never have, and never will, propose or suggest that the Soviet Union surrender what rightly belongs to it. We will never say that the peoples of the USSR are an enemy with whom we have no desire ever to deal or mingle in friendly and fruitful relationship.” Rather, “if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind…. if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material… this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient and economic usage”. Eisenhower’s IAEA would receive contributions from national “stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials”, and also impound, store and protect these and devise “methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind.…to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world… to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.” When Eisenhower visited India he was greeted as the “Prince of Peace” and a vast multitude threw rose petals as he drove by in an open limousine.

Now, half a century later, Dr Manmohan Singh read a speech in Parliament on February 27 relating to our nuclear discussions with America. But it seems unclear even his speech-writers or technical advisers knew how far it was rhetoric and how far grounded in factual realities. There is also tremendous naivete among India’s media anchors and political leaders as to what exactly has been agreed by the Americans on March 2.

Churchill once asked what might have happened if Lloyd George and Clemenceau told Woodrow Wilson: “Is it not true that nothing but your fixed and expiring tenure of office prevents you from being thrown out of power?” The same holds for George W. Bush today. Wilson made many promises to the world that came to be hit for a six by US legislators. In December 2005, Edward Markey (Democrat) and Fred Upton (Republican) promised to scuttle Bush’s agreements with India, and once the pleasant memories of his India visit fade, Bush may quite easily forget most things about us. All the Americans have actually agreed to do is to keep talking.

It needs to be understood that submarine-launched ballistic missiles are the only ultimate military deterrent. Land and air forces are all vulnerable to a massive first-strike. Only submarines lurking silently for long periods in waters near their target, to launch nuclear warheads upon learning their homeland had been hit by the enemy, act as a deterrent preventing that same enemy from making his attack at all. Indeed, the problem becomes how a submarine commander will receive such information and his instructions during such a war. (For India to acquire an ICBM capability beyond the MRBM Agni rockets is to possess an expensive backward technology — as retrograde as the idea India should spend scarce resources sending manned moon missions half a century after it has already been done. The secret is to do something new and beneficial for mankind, not repeat what others did long ago merely to show we can now do it too.) A nuclear-armed submarine needs to be submerged for long periods and also voyage long distances at sea, and hence needs to be nuclear-powered with a miniature version of a civilian nuclear reactor aboard in which, e.g. rods of enriched uranium are bombarded to release enough energy to run hydroelectric turbines to generate power. Patently, no complete separation of the use of atomic power for peace and war may be practically possible. If India creates e.g. its own thorium reactors for civilian power (and we have vast thorium reserves, the nuclear fuel of the future), and then miniaturised these somehow to manufacture reactors for submarines, the use would be both civilian and military. In 1988 the old USSR leased India a nuclear-powered submarine for “training” purposes, and the Americans did not like it at all. In January 2002, Russia’s Naval Chief announced India was paying to build and then lease from 2004 until 2009 two nuclear-powered Akula-class attack submarines, and Jaswant Singh reportedly said we were paying $1 thousand crore ($10 bn) for such a defence package. Whether the transaction has happened is not known. Once we have nuclear submarines permanently, that would be more than enough of the minimum deterrent sought.

Indeed, India’s public has been barely informed of civilian nuclear energy policy as well, and an opportunity now exists for a mature national debate to take place — both on what and why the military planning has been and what it costs (and whether any bribes have been paid), and also on the cost, efficiency and safety of the plans for greater civilian use of nuclear energy. Government behaviour after the Bhopal gas tragedy does not inspire confidence about Indian responses to a Three Mile Island/Chernobyl kind of catastrophic meltdown.

That being said, the central question remains why India or anyone else needs to be nuclear-armed at all. With Britain, France or Russia, there is no war though all three are always keen to sell India weapons. Indeed it has been a perennial question why France and Britain need their own deterrents. They have not fought one another for more than 100 years and play rugby instead. If Russia was an enemy, could they not count on America? Or could America itself conceivably become an enemy of Britain and France? America owes her origins to both, and though the Americans did fight the British until the early 1800s, they have never fought the French and love the City of Paris too much ever to do so.

Between China and India, regardless of what happened half a century ago, nuclear or any war other than border skirmishes in sparse barren lands is unlikely. Ever since Sun Yat-sen, China has been going through a complex process of self-discovery and self-definition. An ancient nation where Maoism despoiled the traditional culture and destroyed Tibet, China causes others to fear it because of its inscrutability. But it has not been aggressive in recent decades except with Taiwan. It has threatened nuclear war on America if the Americans stand up for Taiwan, but that is not a quarrel in which India has a cogent role. China (for seemingly commercial reasons) did join hands with Pakistan against India, but there is every indication the Chinese are quite bored with what Pakistan has become. With Pakistan, our situation is well-known, and there has been an implicit equilibrium since Pokhran II finally flushed out their capacity. Had India ever any ambition of using conventional war to knock out and occupy Pakistan as a country? Of course not. We are barely able to govern ourselves, let aside try to rule an ideologically hostile Muslim colony in the NorthWest. Pakistan’s purported reasons for acquiring nuclear bombs are spurious, and cruelly so in view of the abject failures of Pakistan’s domestic political economy. Could Pakistan’s Government use its bombs against India arising from its own self-delusions over J&K? Gohar Ayub Khan in 1998-1999 threatened to do so when he said the next war would be over in two hours with an Indian surrender. He thereby became the exception to Eisenhower’s rule requiring sanity. An India-Pakistan nuclear exchange is, unfortunately, not impossible, leaving J&K as Hell where Jahangir had once described it as Heaven on Earth.

America needs to end her recent jingoism and instead rediscover the legacy of Eisenhower. America can lead everyone in the world today including Russia, China, Israel, Iran and North Korea. But she can do so only by example. America can decommission many of her own nuclear weapons and then lead everyone else to the conference table to do at least some of the same. Like the UN, the IAEA (and its NPT) needs urgent reform itself. It is the right time for serious and new world parleys towards the safe use of atoms for peace and their abolition in war. But are there any Eisenhowers or Churchills to lead them?

2) Our  energy interests ( Aug 27-28 2006)

Americans are shrewd and practical people in commercial matters, and expect the same of people they do business with. Caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware”, is the motto they expect those on the other side of the table to be using. Let us not think they are doing us favours in the nuclear deal ~ they are grown-ups looking after their interests and naturally expect we shall look after our own and not expect charity while doing business. Equally, let us not blame the Americans if we find in later years (long after Manmohan Singh and Montek Ahluwalia have exited from India’s stage) that the deal has been implemented in a bad way for our masses of ordinary people.

That said, there is a remarkable disjoint between India’s national energy interests (nuclear interests in particular), and the manner in which the nuclear deal is being perceived and taken to implementation by the two sides. There may be a fundamental gap between the genuine positive benefits the Government of India says the deal contains, and the motivations American businessmen and through them Indian businessmen have had for lobbying American and Indian politicians to support it. An atmosphere of being at cross-purposes has been created, where for example Manmohan Singh is giving answers to questions different from the questions we may want to be asking Montek Ahluwalia. The fundamental gap between what is being said by our Government and what may be intended by the businessmen is something anyone can grasp, though first we shall need some elementary facts.

In 2004, the International Energy Agency estimated the new energy capacity required by rising economic growth in 2020 will derive 1400 GW from burning coal (half of it in China and India), 470 GW from burning oil, 430GW from hydro, and 400 GW from renewable sources like solar or wind power. Because gas prices are expected to remain low worldwide, construction of new nuclear reactors for electricity will be unprofitable. By 2030, new energy expected to be required worldwide is 4700GW, of which only 150GW is expected from new nuclear plants, which will be in any case replacing existing plants due to be retired. Rational choice between different energy sources depends on costs determined by history and geography. Out of some 441 civilian reactors worldwide, France has 59 and these generate 78 per cent of its electricity, the rest coming from hydro. Japan has 54 reactors, generating 34% of its electricity from them. The USA has 104 reactors but generates only 20 per cent of its electricity from them, given its vast alternative sources of power like hydro. In India as of 2003, installed power generating capacity was 107,533.3MW, of which 71 per cent came from burning fuels. Among India’s energy sources, the largest growth-potential is hydroelectric, which does not involve burning fuels ~ gravity moves water from the mountains to the oceans, and this force is harnessed for generation. Our hydro potential, mostly in the North and North-East, is some 150,000MW but our total installed hydro capacity with utilities was only 26,910MW (about 18 per cent of potential). Our 14 civilian nuclear reactors produced merely 4 per cent or less of the electricity being consumed in the country. Those 14 plants will come under “international safeguards” by 2014 under the nuclear deal.

It is extremely likely the international restrictions our existing nuclear plants have been under since the 1970s have hindered if not crippled their functioning and efficiency. At the same time, the restrictions may have caused us to be innovative too. Nuclear power arises from fission of radioactive uranium, plutonium or thorium. India has some 8 million tonnes of monazite deposits along the seacoast of which half may be mined, to yield 225,000 tonnes of thorium metal; we have one innovatively designed thorium reactor under construction. Almost all nuclear energy worldwide today arises from uranium of which there are practically unlimited reserves. Fission of a uranium atom produces 10 million times the energy produced by combustion of an atom of carbon from coal. Gas and fossil fuels may be cheap and in plentiful supply worldwide for generations to come but potential for cheap nuclear energy seems practically infinite. The uranium in seawater can satisfy mankind’s total electricity needs for 7 million years. There is more energy in the uranium impurity present in coal than can arise from actually burning the coal. There is plenty of uranium in granite. None of these become profitable for centuries because there is so much cheap uranium extractable from conventional ores. Design improvements in reactors will also improve productivity; e.g. “fast breeder” reactors “breed” more fissile material than they use, and may get 100 times as much energy from a kilogram of uranium as existing reactors do. India has about 95,000 tonnes of uranium metal that may be mined to yield about 61,000 tonnes net for power generation. Natural uranium is 99.3 per cent of the U-238 isotope and 0.7 per cent of the radioactive U-235 isotope. Nuclear power generation requires “enriched uranium” or “yellow cake” to be created in which U-235 has been increased from 0.7 per cent to 4 to 5 percent. (Nuclear bombs require highly enriched uranium with more than 90 per cent of U-235.) Yellow cake is broken into small pieces, put in metal rods placed in bundles, which are then bombarded by neutrons causing fission. In a reactor, the energy released turns water into steam, which moves turbines generating electricity. While there is no carbon dioxide “waste” as in burning fossil fuels, the “spent” rods of nuclear fuel and other products constitute grave radioactive waste, almost impossible to dispose of.

The plausible part of the Government of India’s official line on the Indo-US nuclear deal is that removing the international restrictions will ~ through importation of new technologies, inputs, fuel etc ~ improve functioning of our 14 existing civilian plants. That is a good thing. Essentially, the price being paid for that improvement is our willingness to commit that those 14 plants will not be used for military purposes. Fair enough: even if we might become less innovative as a result, the overall efficiency gains as a result of the deal will add something to India’s productivity. However, those purchasing decisions involved in enhancing India’s efficiency gains must be made by the Government’s nuclear scientists on technical grounds of improving the working of our existing nuclear infrastructure.

It is a different animal altogether to be purchasing new nuclear reactors on a turn-key basis from American or any other foreign businessmen in a purported attempt to improve India’s “energy security”. (Lalu Yadav has requested a new reactor for Bihar, plus of course Delhi will want one, etc.) The central question over such massive foreign purchases would no longer be the technical one of using the Indo-US deal to improve efficiency or productivity of our existing nuclear infrastructure. Instead it would become a question of calculating social costs and benefits of our investing in nuclear power relative to other sources like hydroelectric power. Even if all other sources of electricity remained constant, and our civilian nuclear capacity alone was made to grow by 100 per cent under the Manmohan-Montek deal-making, that would mean less than 8% of total Indian electricity produced.

This is where the oddities arise and a disjoint becomes apparent between what the Government of India is saying and what American and Indian businessmen have been doing. A “US-India Business Council” has existed for thirty years in Washington as “the premier business advocacy organization promoting US commercial interests in India.… the voice of the American private sector investing in India”. Before the nuclear or any other deals could be contemplated with American business, the USIBC insisted we pay up for Dabhol contracted by a previous Congress Government. The Maharashtra State Electricity Board ~ or rather, its sovereign guarantor the Government of India ~ duly paid out at least $140-$160 million each to General Electric and Bechtel Corporations in “an amicable settlement” of the Dabhol affair. Afterwards, General Electric’s CEO for India was kind enough to say “India is an important country to GE’s global growth. We look forward to working with our partners, customers, and State and Central Governments in helping India continue to develop into a leading world economy”.

Also, a new “US-India CEO Forum” then came about. For two Governments to sponsor private business via such a Forum was “unprecedented”, as noted by Washington’s press during Manmohan Singh’s visit in July 2005. America’s foreign ministry announced it saying: “Both our governments have agreed that we should create a high-level private sector forum to exchange business community views on key economic priorities…” The American side includes heads of AES Corporation, Cargill Inc., Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Honeywell, McGraw-Hill, Parsons Brinckerhoff Ltd, PepsiCo, Visa International and Xerox Corporation. The Indian side includes heads of Tata Group, Apollo Hospitals Group, Bharat Forge Ltd, Biocon India Group, HDFC, ICICI One Source, Infosys, ITC Ltd, Max India Group and Reliance Industries. Presiding over the Indian side has been Montek Ahluwalia, Manmohan’s trusted aide ~ and let it be remembered too that the Ahluwalias were Manmohan’s strongest backers in his failed South Delhi Lok Sabha bid. (Indeed it is not clear if the Ahluwalias have been US or Indian residents in recent years, and if it is the former, the onus is on them to clear any perception of conflict of interest arising in regard to roles regarding the nuclear deal or any other official Indo-US business.)

Also, before the Manmohan visit, the Confederation of Indian Industry registered as an official lobbyist in Washington, and went about spending half a million dollars lobbying American politicians for the nuclear deal. After the Manmohan visit, the US Foreign Commercial Service reportedly said American engineering firms, equipment suppliers and contractors faced a $1,000 billion (1 bn =100 crore) opportunity in India. Before President Bush’s visit to India in March 2006, Manmohan Singh signed vast purchases of commercial aircraft from Boeing and Airbus, as well as large weapons’ deals with France and Russia. After the Bush visit, the US Chamber of Commerce said the nuclear deal can cause $100 billion worth of new American business in India’s energy-sector alone. What is going on?

Finally, the main aspect of Manmohan Singh’s address to America’s legislature had to do with agreeing with President Bush “to enhance Indo-US cooperation in the field of civilian nuclear technology”. What precisely does this mean? If it means the Indo-US nuclear deal will help India improve or maintain its existing nuclear infrastructure, well and good. There may be legitimate business for American and other foreign companies in that cause, which also helps India make the efficiency and productivity gains mentioned. Or has the real motivation for the American businessmen driving the deal (with the help of the “CEO Forum” etc) been to sell India nuclear reactors on a turn-key basis (in collaboration with private Indian businessmen) at a time when building new nuclear reactors is unprofitable elsewhere in the world because of low gas prices? India’s citizens may demand to know from the Government whether the Manmohan-Montek deal-making is going to cause importation of new nuclear reactors, and if so, why such an expensive alternative is being considered (relative to e.g. India’s abundant hydroelectric potential) when it will have scant effect in satisfying the country’s energy needs and lead merely to a worsening of our macroeconomic problems. Both Manmohan Singh and Montek Ahluwalia have been already among those to preside over the growth of India’s macroeconomic problems through the 1980s and 1990s.

Lastly, an irrelevant distraction should be gotten out of the way. Are we a “nuclear weapons” state? Of course we are, but does it matter to anything but our vanity? Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev had control over vastly more nuclear weapons and they declared together twenty years ago: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought”, which is how the Cold War started to come to an end. We need to remind ourselves that India and Pakistan are large, populous countries with hundreds of millions of materially poor, ill-informed citizens, weak tax-bases, humongous internal and external public debts (i.e. debt owed by the Government to domestic and foreign creditors), non-investment grade credit- ratings in world financial markets, massive annual fiscal deficits, inconvertible currencies, nationalized banks, and runaway printing of paper-money. Discussing nuclear or other weapon-systems to attack one other with is mostly a pastime of our cowardly, irresponsible and yes, corrupt, elites.

3) Need for Clarity A poorly drafted treaty driven by business motives is a recipe for international misunderstanding  (August 19 2007)

Confusion prevails over the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. Businessmen, bureaucrats, politicians, diplomats, scientists and now the public at large have all joined in the cacophony in the last two years. On Wednesday August 15, America’s foreign ministry made the clearest most unequivocal statement possible as to the official American Government interpretation of the Indo-US nuclear deal: “The proposed 123 agreement has provisions in it that in an event of a nuclear test by India, then all nuclear co-operation is terminated, as well as there is provision for return of all materials, including reprocessed material covered by the agreement” (Sean McCormack). Yet our Prime Minister had told Parliament two days earlier: “The agreement does not in any way affect India’s right to undertake future nuclear tests, if it is necessary”. What is going on? Our politics are in uproar, and it has been suggested in these pages that the country go to a General Election to allow the people to speak on the matter. Clearly, we need some clarity.

Let us start at the beginning. How did it all originate? The private US nuclear industry prevailed upon India’s government bureaucrats and businessmen over several years that nuclear power is the way forward to solving India’s “infrastructure” problems. They would sell us, in words of the Manmohan-Montek Planning Commission’s energy adviser, “six to eight lightwater reactors” (especially as they may not be able to sell these anywhere else). Our usual prominent self-seeking retired bureaucrats started their waffling about the importance of “infrastructure”.

Then Manmohan Singh felt his foreign travels as PM could be hardly complete without a fife-and-drum visit to the White House. But before he could do so, Dabhol would have to be cleared up since American business in India was on a self-moratorium until GE and Bechtel were paid settlements of some $140-160 million each by the Governments of India and Maharashtra. GE’s CEO for India kindly said afterwards “India is an important country to GE’s global growth. We look forward to working with our partners, customers, and State and Central Governments in helping India continue to develop into a leading world economy”.

Also, before Manmohan’s USA trip, the Confederation of Indian Industry registered as an official Washington lobbyist and spent half a million dollars lobbying American politicians for the deal. (”Why?” would be a good question.)

So Dr Singh was able to make his White House visit, accompanied by US business lobbies saying the nuclear deal can generate $100 billion worth of new American business in India’s energy-sector alone. It is only when business has lubricated politics in America that so much agreement about the India-deal could arise. The “bottom-line” is that six to eight reactors must be sold to India, whatever politics and diplomacy it takes.

Now Dr Singh is not a PM who is a Member of the Lower House of Parliament commanding its confidence. He says his Government constitutes the Executive and can sign treaties on India’s behalf. This is unwise. If he signs a treaty and then the Congress Party loses the next General Election, a new Executive Government can use his same words to rescind the same treaty. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. One reason we are so confused is that India has not signed very many bilateral treaties, and there is barely a noted specialist in international law anywhere in the country. Dr Singh’s original mentor, PN Haksar, had gone about getting a treaty signed with the USSR back in 1971 which tided us over a war, though the USSR itself collapsed before that treaty ended.

Signing a treaty is much more than signing an international MOU. It requires a national consensus or a least a wide and deep understanding on the part of the public and the political class as to what necessitates the treaty. That plainly does not exist at present. Most people in India do not even know how nuclear power is generated, nor how small and insignificant nuclear power has been in India.

Natural uranium is 99.3 per cent of the U-238 isotope and 0.7 per cent the radioactive U-235 isotope. Nuclear power generation requires “enriched uranium” or “yellow cake” to be created in which U-235 has been increased from 0.7 per cent to 4 to 5 percent. (Nuclear bombs require “highly enriched” uranium with more than 90 per cent of U-235.) Yellow cake is broken into small pieces, put in metal rods placed in bundles, which are then bombarded by neutrons causing fission. In a reactor, the energy released turns water into steam, which moves turbines generating electricity. While there is no carbon dioxide “waste” as in burning fossil fuels, the “spent” rods of nuclear fuel and other products constitute grave radioactive waste, almost impossible to dispose of.

India’s 14 “civilian” nuclear reactors presently produce less than 4% of our total power. 70% of our power arises from burning fossil fuels, mainly coal. Much of the rest arises from hydro. We have vast hydroelectric potential in the North and Northeast but it would take a lot of serious political, administrative and civil engineering effort to organise all that, and there would not be any nice visits to Washington or Paris involved for politicians and bureaucrats.

Simple arithmetic says that even if all our principal energy sources stayed constant and only our tiny nuclear power sector grew by 100%, that would still hardly increase by very much our energy output overall. Placing a couple of expensive modern lightwater reactors around Delhi, a couple around Mumbai and a few other metros will, however, butter already buttered bread quite nicely and keep all those lifts and ACs running.

The agreed text of the “treaty” looks, from a legal standpoint, quite sloppily and hurriedly written ~ almost as if each side has cut and paste its own preferred terms in different places with a nod to the other side. For example, there is mention of “WMD” initially which is repeated as “weapons of mass destruction” just a little later. There is solemn mention of the “Government of India” and “Government of the United States of America” as the “Parties”, but this suddenly becomes merely “United States” and “India” in the middle and then reverts again to the formal usage.

Through the sloppiness comes scope for different interpretations. The Americans have said: try not to test, you don’t need to, we don’t test any more, and you have to know that if you do test, this deal is over, in fact it gets reversed. We have said, okay, we won’t test, and if we do test we know it is over with you but that does not mean it is over with others. Given such sloppy diplomacy and treaty-making, the scope for mutual misunderstanding, even war, remains immense long after all the public Indian moneys have found their way into private pockets worldwide. Will a future President Jeb Bush or Chelsea Clinton send F-22 bombers to bomb India’s nuclear facilities because India has carried out a test yet declined to return American equipment? Riding a tiger is not something generally to be recommended.

The answer to our present conundrum must be patience and the fullest transparency. What is the rush? If it is good or bad for us to buy six or eight new American reactors now, it will remain good or bad to do so a year or two from now after everyone has had a thorough think about everything that is involved. What the Manmohan-Montek Planning Commission needed to do first of all was a thorough cost-benefit analysis of India’s energy requirements but such elementary professionalism has been sorely lacking among our economists for decades.”

Subroto Roy

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One Response to “On the curious pre-9/11 quaintness of current criticism of India’s 1998 nuclear tests”

  1. climberguy Says:

    I see an example of the Indian ego needing to be stroked. I am just an accidental observer but if this is really the mentality that prevails in the Indian elite, it offers insight into the state of affairs in India.


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