Indian Scientist Triggers Debate on Testing

Daniel Horner

A leading Indian nuclear scientist has said the yield from India’s 1998 test of a thermonuclear device was less than expected and that the country should not close off the option of further tests.

The comments, reported Aug. 27 by The Times of India, touched off a debate that has lasted for weeks.

The Times quoted K. Santhanam, who had direct responsibility for the series of 1998 nuclear tests as a top scientist with India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), as saying, “Based upon the seismic measurements and expert opinion from [the] world over, it is clear that the yield in the thermonuclear device test was much lower than what was claimed. I think it is well documented and that is why I assert that India should not rush into signing” the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

In a subsequent interview with the Indian Web site, Santhanam was asked about the timing of his comments. He cited the change of U.S. administrations, saying that the Obama administration is “bound to further pressurise India to sign the CTBT.”Top Indian officials, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Anil Kakodkar, rejected Santhanam’s claims and said the 1998 test was successful, according to Indian media reports.

India, which is one of the 44 designated states that must ratify the CTBT to bring it into force, has not signed the treaty. Its current policy is to adhere to a declared moratorium on testing.

During a Sept. 21 media briefing in Washington, Tibor Tóth, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, said it was “very encouraging” that the rebuttals to Santhanam were coming from within India and included people who were “even higher in the scientific echelon” than Santhanam at the time of the 1998 tests.

Among the officials arguing that the 1998 tests were a success was A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who was head of the DRDO at the time and later became president of India. In the interview, Santhanam dismissed Kalam’s comments, saying Kalam is a missile scientist and was not present at the test.

Responding to Santhanam in an interview with The Hindu, Indian National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan said, “As of now, we are steadfast in our commitment to the [nuclear testing] moratorium. At least there is no debate in the internal circles about this.” Asked about the prospects of joining the CTBT if other current nonparties, such as the United States and China, do so, Narayanan said India needed to “have a full-fledged discussion on the CTBT.”

Observers inside and outside India have said the country’s government would have to weigh the impact of a nuclear test on its nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. Under U.S. law, an Indian test would halt such cooperation.

The agreement entered into force last year, but several unresolved issues have blocked nuclear trade between the two countries.

India has said there will be no contracts with U.S. companies until the two countries have concluded an agreement on reprocessing of U.S.-origin material. The first round of talks took place in July and went smoothly, according to two U.S. sources. The next round is scheduled for October 8-9, the sources said. The Department of State declined to confirm the dates.

One of the sources, who strongly supports the U.S.-Indian deal, said it is “possible, though perhaps unlikely” that the reprocessing agreement would be finalized before Singh comes to the United States for a scheduled state visit in late November.

Also still unresolved are terms for U.S. exports of nuclear technology. (See ACT, September 2009.) A 2006 U.S. law known as the Hyde Act creates a “nuclear export accountability program” that includes requirements for the tracking of U.S. nuclear exports to ensure that they do not boost India’s weapons program.

Agreeing on those arrangements has taken longer than it should have, the source said. There might have been some “miscommunication” that was not handled “expeditiously,” but the two sides are “definitely focused now” on resolving the issue, he said. U.S. industry officials are “just tearing their hair out” at the slow pace, he said.

At a Sept. 25 press briefing in New York, Robert Blake, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, acknowledged that “there are still some steps that have to be taken” to “move forward” on nuclear cooperation. They include passage of nuclear liability legislation by the Indian parliament and the formal announcement of sites at which U.S. companies would build groups of reactors, Blake said.