Building the Bomb: How States Go Nuclear

By Clegg, Elizabeth M. | Contemporary Review, February 1993 | Go to article overview

Building the Bomb: How States Go Nuclear


Clegg, Elizabeth M., Contemporary Review


IN addition to the five acknowledged nuclear weapons states in existence today, there are at least another five unacknowledged nuclear powers stationed at varying points along the route towards acquiring nuclear weapons. This article will look at the nuclear programmes, civilian and military, of a few of these de facto nuclear powers. I hope to show the ways in which they have been able to acquire the relevant technologies and materials which have sustained their nuclear weapons programmes.

India took her first steps into the world of nuclear technology in 1956 when she purchased the CIRUS research reactor from Canada. The early inception of the Indian project meant that it was relatively free from restrictions, pre-dating, as it did, the current non-proliferation regime with all its attendant rules and safeguards. The Canadian government of the time did insist, however, that the reactor they were supplying should be used for peaceful purposes only. Accordingly, the Indian nuclear explosion of 1974 which used plutonium extracted from the spent fuel of the CIRUS reactor was termed a 'peaceful nuclear explosion' in an attempt by the Indian government to legitimize this controversial step. Nevertheless the Canadian government would have none of it and immediately broke off all further co-operation with India in the nuclear field. Despite this setback, the Indian nuclear programme continued almost uninterrupted to the point where a nuclear capability, if not already in India's possession, could be procured with relative ease.

According to Leonard Spector, India has never advocated her right to use plutonium from the CIRUS reactor in the manufacture of nuclear explosives. If this is the case it would seem that after the initial nuclear test, and despite having the know-how for nuclear weapons construction, India would have experienced difficulty in acquiring the materials necessary for the job. Indeed, while India did, at the time of the 'peaceful nuclear explosion', operate two nuclear plants at Rajasthan, these were subject to IAEA safeguards, thus preventing the by-products from being channelled into weapons production. It was only when the unsafeguarded Madras-I power plant was started up in 1983 that India was on the way to having an ensured supply of plutonium, unshackled by international obligations, and it is estimated that in its first year of operation the Madras reactor yielded between one and four bombs' worth of fissile material. The production of unsafeguarded plutonium has continued apace in India with some estimates claiming that she is producing sufficient plutonium to sustain a nuclear weapons programme on a scale comparable with that of China.

When sensitive nuclear technologies and materials are bought and sold on the world market, it has become the norm that such transactions will involve restrictions being placed by the supplier on the use of the material by the receiving nation. There are a number of sensitive materials with uses in nuclear weapons development which are routinely bought and sold on the world market, but it is India's procurement and use of heavy water (deuterium oxide: |H.sub.2~|O.sub.2~) which has drawn down some of the most severe criticism upon this nation.

The plutonium used in India's first and only nuclear explosion to date, as mentioned above, comes from the Canadian supplied CIRUS reactor; the heavy water used in the manufacture of this plutonium was obtained from the US also with the pledge that it would be used for peaceful purposes only. Since the explosion of 1974, India's reliance on heavy water for the running of its civilian nuclear industry has remained. In the same way, India's production of plutonium for military purposes is dependent upon regular supplies of heavy water. India's acknowledged heavy water imports have, however, fallen consistently short of the requirements of her entire nuclear industry. When it is considered that India's domestic production of heavy water has never been able to supply more than a fraction of her needs only two conclusions can be reached. …

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