India’s journey to becoming a nuclear power

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Who controls the world’s nuclear energy resources?
Unlike other minerals, uranium, the main fuel for nuclear reactors, is not freely traded. The technology of building nuclear reactors is closely guarded by a voluntary association of 46 countries called the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) which follows certain guidelines for supplying uranium as well as the technology to make nuclear reactors. Its policies are determined mainly by the industrialised countries and many in the developing world criticise it for not letting them have access to an energy source that can help them meet their growing energy demand.

Since when is India trying to harness nuclear energy?
After completing his PhD in nuclear physics from Cambridge University, Homi Jehangir Bhabha returned to India in 1939 when the Second World War started. He became instrumental in convincing Jawaharlal Nehru to start India’s own nuclear energy programme. Under Bhabha, the Department of Atomic Energy was formed in the 1950s and was later joined by Raja Ramanna and Homi Sethna. The trio is credited with spearheading India’s nuclear energy programme.

What was the Atom for Peace programme?
Apart from the fear of proliferation of nuclear weapons, there was also a huge commercial interest in nuclear energy. Experts say that under pressure from the industry, the American government started its Atom for Peace programme and enacted the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which provided American industries wider access to the government’s nuclear technology. The programme is often seen as an American attempt to dominate the world nuclear market. Following the Act, there was a UN conference on the peaceful uses of atomic energy presided over by Bhabha. Under this programme, the US agreed to sell India heavy water for a reactor that was to be provided by Canada with the stipulation that it would be only for peaceful use.
Why didn’t India sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty when it was getting technology for peaceful use of nuclear power?
In the midst of the Atom for Peace programme, when some countries were provided nuclear reactors, many countries including the UK, France and China were testing atom bombs. Following the French test in 1961, an Irish resolution for international agreement to refrain from transfer or acquisition of nuclear weapons was unanimously passed by the UN. The negotiations started in 1965 and later a clause was included that only those states that had exploded a nuclear device prior to January 1, 1967 would be recognised as nuclear weapons states. This meant China’s inclusion and India’s exclusion. Signing a treaty against nuclear tests without the complete disarmament of other nuclear powers was rejected by India and many other countries.
What became the trigger for the formation of NSG?
After India’s defeat in the war with China, public opinion started building for India to conduct its nuclear test as a deterrent for China’s future aggression. In 1964, China too joined the elite club of nuclear states by testing an atom bomb and Bhabha started aggressive lobbying for Indian nuclear weapons, giving radio speeches and so on. Bhabha died in a plane crash in 1966 and the programme was taken forward by Ramanna and Sethna. On May 18, 1974, India carried out an underground nuclear explosion in Pokhran in Rajasthan. A research reactor, CIRUS, which was supplied by Canada, was used as the source of plutonium. This incident became the trigger for the formation of the NSG. This is seen as the first incident when a weapon was manufactured by using material diverted from a civilian nuclear programme, but it wasn’t the first example of intentional or unintentional help of a nuclear state to a non-nuclear country in making the weapon. It is alleged that the US aided UK’s weapon programme, the Soviets helped the Chinese and Israel was helped by the French. India never acknowledged that the 1974 tests were for a nuclear bomb and the peaceful use cause was violated. It was said that the test was done to check the possible use of nuclear explosives in mining and earth moving operations.

Why didn’t India sign the NPT after the 1998 nuclear test?
After the 1998 tests, when India acknowledged testing nuclear bombs and was followed by Pakistan, the UN Security council offered both India and Pakistan the option of becoming stateparties to the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states. This was not accepted. Experts believe a possible solution could be giving the status of nuclear weapon state to India to pit it at par with China, which is not possible under the present act. China and other countries recently blocked India’s bid to join the NSG on the ground of it being a non-signatory of NPT.

Source: Economic Times

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