India's Nuclear Politics

The names of Buddha and Shakti, both sacred in India, have been borrowed for the most destructive of man's endeavours, creating a nuclear bomb. And, says Adrian Glamorgan, Australia has now dealt itself directly into the high stakes game of Indian nuclear politics.

The names of Buddha and Shakti, both sacred in India, have been borrowed for the most destructive of man's endeavours, creating a nuclear bomb. And, says Adrian Glamorgan, Australia has now dealt itself directly into the high stakes game of Indian nuclear politics.

"Smiling Buddha" was tested on Gautama Buddha's birthday, 1974, witnessed by the Indian PM Indira Gandhi herself. Using Canadian uranium, the underground nuclear bomb yielded about half the destructive energy unleashed at Hiroshima. It was the first nuclear device to be tested by a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

India had been heavily involved in developing the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), yet did not sign it. Essentially, the NPT is a promise: non-nuclear nations will stay non-nuclear and, in return, the nuclear weapons countries promise to disarm - eventually. But India had defied world opinion by crossing the line and joining the nuclear weapons club.

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan did not consider the Indian government's test a "peaceful nuclear explosion" and ended scheduled talks called to normalise relations. Pakistan's PM Zulfikar Bhutto asserted he "would not be intimidated by this threat", pledging Pakistan would never succumb to "nuclear blackmail" and vowing never to accept "Indian hegemony or domination over the subcontinent". The chair of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission declared India's nuclear test now forced Pakistan to work on its own nuclear bomb program.

Under international pressure, India kept relatively quiet. During the 1980s, secret work was initiated on more powerful hydrogen bombs and a missile delivery program. Then in 1998, the Hindu nationalist, free enterprise, pro-nuclear BJP was elected. Despite categorical promises made to the Americans that "there would be no surprise testings", within two months the moratorium was set aside and India conducted its second group of nuclear tests. The devices were delivered to the preparation building called the "Prayer Hall". Operation Shakti, named after the Hindu goddess of primordial energy, was the codename for five more nuclear weapon explosions.

Within India, there was much celebrating a "Hindu Bomb". The media reported national exhilaration; the Bombay Stock Exchange joined in the jubilation with significant stock gains. Beyond India's borders it was a different story. The UN expressed its "disappointment"; China called on the world to pressure India to sign the NPT; the United States imposed economic sanctions. Only Israel praised India's tests, perhaps for reasons to do with its own nuclear weapons intentions.

Predictably, Pakistan's foreign affairs minister declared, "We are in a headlong arms race on the subcontinent." Within weeks, Pakistan tested its own thermonuclear devices, becoming the seventh country to test nuclear weapons.

Thirteen years on, India has about 50 operational nuclear weapons, and various ways to deliver them including ballistic missiles and aircraft. But it also has the biggest navy in the Indian Ocean (and something like the 11th biggest in the world), and submarines under development. Ships and submarines that could sail within target range of Australia.

India now has a few nuclear deals with countries willing to ignore the lack of NPT: agreements with France, the United States, Mongolia, Namibia and Kazakhstan. And now, Australia looks set to join these few.

On Sunday December 4, the Australian Labor Party gathered at Darling Harbour for its national conference, debating the repeal of its ban on exporting uranium to India. Senator Stephen Conroy rose, his voice nearly breaking, his feelings barely in check, as he recalled his English family who worked at Windscale (later Sellafield) nuclear power plant during and after the disaster of October 1957, when uranium "leaked everywhere" and school milk had to be destroyed because of contamination. His uncle was "involved in all the cover ups", telling him never to be involved in the nuclear industry if he had a choice. MP Laura Smyth warned that if Australia went around the international treaty for nuclear non-proliferation, "we leave ourselves open to pressure from every other country in the world on every other issue that they wish to invite debate on." Others rose to warn, only nine months after Fukushima, how could this be done? "If the US can't get proper safeguards out of India, how are you going to do it?"

Those in favour of exporting uranium to India argued that it would bring electricity to many poor Indians, be good for jobs, and our relations with a "dynamic, democratic India". The Prime Minister won the day, with 206 votes in favour of exporting uranium, to 185 against. The Australian Uranium Association welcomed the change of Labor policy.

There are ongoing campaigns in India against nuclear power, including hunger strikes: in Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu, where fishing people are having their livelihoods threatened; Jaitapur, Maharashtra, where mango and cashew cultivation is under threat; and Gorakhpur, Haryana, where farmers face dispossession and contamination threats. A demonstration in New Delhi is happening the very day I'm writing this. There is concern about the cost, and a history of gross negligence in the nuclear industry. There is outrage that nuclear suppliers have now been allowed by Indian legislation to stipulate their own "product liability period" (a maximum in any case of five years!) after which the corporations supplying nuclear equipment cannot be held liable in case of any nuclear accident.

The former head of the Indian National Security Advisory Board, K. Subrahmanyam warned Australians, "Make no mistake- selling uranium to India will increase the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region." He argued, "It is to India's advantage to categorise as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones, to be refuelled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons graded plutonium production." Pioneer nuclear scientist and former member of India's Atomic Energy Commission, Dr MNP Parameswaran raised questions still unanswered about disposal of radioactive waste, and the likelihood of human - or nature-caused nuclear accidents.

Whatever is decided at party policy level, it remains illegal for Australia to export uranium to India. Donald Rothwell, Professor of international law at Australian National University, has reminded the Australian Government that since India has failed to agree to "full-scope safeguards" defined by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Australia is bound under the 1985 Treaty of Raratonga not to sell. To sell uranium to India, Australia will have to abandon the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone: another multilateral agreement that would be undermined by uranium sales.

Predictably, Pakistan's high commissioner to Australia, Abdul Malik Abdullah, called for "equitable and non-discriminatory" sales of uranium to Pakistan, too. However, both Australia's foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith and Opposition leader Tony Abbott generally agree that India is a stable democracy with agreements with the nuclear suppliers group and the international civil atomic energy agency, which explains why Pakistan wouldn't be considered. By supporting India's nuclear program, we are setting ourselves at odds with Pakistan, unnecessarily and with little gain for ourselves.

The global warming costs of nuclear plants (concrete, plutonium processing, decommissioning, and caring for nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years) simply adds to India's, and the world's, problems.

It is an untidy mess, and much worse than that. India, the country of Buddha, Gandhi, of colourful spiritual seeking, is now an economic powerhouse arming itself with nuclear weapons and a ballistic missile program, bringing tension with its Muslim neighbour, while allowing corporations that build nuclear power plants to entirely avoid liability for nuclear accidents. If we join this mess, we undermine the moves to nuclear controls through the NPT and eventual disarmament, and tear up the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone.

With too easy a heart and too little examined intention, Australia has dealt itself into a game much tougher than presented: where "civil reactors" rupture (Kalpakkam), leak radioactive iodine at more than 700 times normal levels (Tarapur), release radioactivity (Tarapur again), almost lead to meltdown (Bulandshahr), leak helium and heavy water into a river (Kota), and no one in Australia is expecting to hear a single peasant farmer cry out.

But if the historic Buddha walked amongst us now, what would bring him a gentle smile? What change would Shakti help us bring? What would Gandhi be saying to you or me, not about India, but about Australia, our democracy, and what we how we should live it?