Nuclear Testing Times

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an international agreement that would bind all nations to never again carry out a nuclear test, has passed from the lexicon of India’s foreign policy debate — even though it was once one of the dirty words of New Delhi’s nattering class.

I was asked to attend the CTBT Organisation’s conference on the fifteenth anniversary of the treaty two weeks ago in Vienna. Possibly because no Indian official was willing to attend. India has put so much space between itself and the CTBT that it declines to even send observers to CTBT functions. Other non-signatory nations did, however, including China and Pakistan.

It was a useful refresher on where the CTBT stands today. For me, the answer was that the treaty is in remarkably good stead. It is also in a much better position to respond to critics of the treaty.

One is the issue of whether the CTBTO can actually detect a nuclear explosion. The answer is largely “yes.” The CTBTO today has a stunning 337 international monitoring stations, 90 per cent of the total envisaged under the treaty, from the Arctic to Antarctica, on mountains and even the ocean bed. These stations are of four varieties: seismic, hydroacoustic, radionuclide and infrasound. I visited one of the third variety on the roof of the CTBTO office in Vienna, complete with its pure germanium detector and giant rooftop air-sampling vacuum cleaner.

There are some types of tiny nuclear tests, in the range of one-tenth of a tonne of TNT equivalent and less, that this network would struggle to detect. And these could help finesse existing weapons systems, but they would be useless in the development of new ones. Which is what the test ban is broadly designed to stop.

The other issue is whether it is likely to get the approval of the main nuclear powers. The answer: it all depends on the US presidential elections in November.

As the conference made amply clear, until the US ratifies the CTBT, then China will not do the same. And if neither of them does it, then India won’t either. If India is on board, so is Pakistan. Israel, one of the quiet nuclear weapons states, would probably go in once the US did.

This chain reaction of ratifications and signatories (in India’s case, these two acts are merged into one) is expected to follow a US action. Many of the US participants, drawn from the non-proliferation expert line up, were scathing about their country’s shilly-shallying. Especially, as one pointed out, the original purpose of the CTBT was to lock in the US’s nuclear weapons technology superiority.

But, as many noted, what has happened is that almost every country in the world accepts the norm that there should be no testing.

India, of course, famously refused to sign the CTBT and despite attempts by the Vajpayee government and Manmohan Singh’s regime to consider putting pen to dotted line, the opposition has been able to recast testing into a “sovereignty” or worse issue.

There is a case for India to consider supporting the CTBT after the US and China have led the way.

It all really depends on whether India actually needs to carry out more nuclear tests. Opinion is divided, but a 2009 debate on this issue was triggered by K. Santhanam, former number two at the Defence Research Development Organisation, who claimed the Pokhran II nuclear tests had failed. In the resulting furore, the government released more information about the tests and made a strong case for the tests having succeeded. If true, then India’s moratorium can be extended indefinitely and, if so, might as well be transmuted into a treaty signature.

India is then only waiting for the US to sign and a domino fall of other countries to follow suit. It is possible New Delhi may hold the CTBT on hold until it becomes a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other non-proliferation technology regimes. But these are really tactical issues.

There are other reasons India should take another look at the CTBTO. Because of its network of monitoring sites, the CTBTO played a remarkable role in detecting and tracking the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear accident. Similarly, it is a useful monitor of tsunami-type geological activity.

While India is playing a waiting game for the US Senate to get the ball rolling again, it should start ending its present Cold War allergy to the CTBTO and similar bodies. India could easily be an observer of the CTBTO without compromising any of its principles — and getting access to knowledge that may actually prove to have important humanitarian applications.



Copyright © 2012 the Hindustan Times.

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