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Ashutosh Sheshabalaya On Indian Issues
Indian Nuclear Scientists Resist 'Help'
by Ashutosh Sheshabalaya

Response to January 2006 article in The Financial Times, London.

Portraying the India-US nuclear pact as an American effort to "help" India ('India and US risk losing impetus on nuclear deal', FT, January 26) exemplifies one of its key hurdles. This concerns not just the US Congress but also India's influential nuclear/scientific establishment (one of whose icons is Indian President Abdul Kalam). India's scientists are wary that the country's hard-won autonomy in the face of three decades of American sanctions (after the first Indian nuclear test in 1974) may be dealt a blow by the inevitable strings attached to such "help".

India's military-technological self-sufficiency is wide ranging and exemplified, in spite of US opposition, by a string of successes in areas such as teraflop supercomputers, fourth-generation communication and remote sensing satellies, Ariane IV class rockets (recently chosen for the launch of Israel's next spy satellites), as well as a host of world firsts in nuclear technology.

In the nuclear field, one Indian scientific breakthrough concerns a high efficiency means to produce tritium; in January 1998, Jane's Intelligence Review noted that it was "the first of its kind anywhere in the world", and one which not only "tipped the strategic scale in New Delhi's favour" but also "cocked a snook" at the US. The second concerns the Indian fast-breeder reactor programme, which is erroneously termed "nascent" by the Carnegie Endowment's George Perkovich. The Indian fast-breeder program is in fact very close to validation, with a functional demonstrator, Kamini. It is also the most advanced breeder program based on thorium fuel, of which India possesses a third of the world's reserves. This not only opens the door to abundant quantities of fissile material for the Indian nuclear weapons program (what Mr. Sokolski calls the deal's "nasty" details), but also for power.

The jacket of Mr. George Perkovich's book 'India's Nuclear Bomb' (1999) observed that India's May 1998 tests followed "decades of nuclear restraint, a control that no other nations with similar capacities had displayed." Now on the edge of self-sufficiency, and after running the gauntlet of sanctions for 30 years, India's scientists are hardly thrilled by the idea of US interference.

Above all, the proposed American "help" appears strange due to other factors. India already has started building its own 500 MW pressurized heavy water reactors, and will soon upscale this to 700 MW units. Given its massive energy needs, India quickly requires more advanced reactors, but these are already being built for the country by the Russians, with the French too making an offer. One reason is commercial. India (and China) account for the bulk of the world's planned new nuclear power plants. The second is more political. Both Russia and France are (along with the US) in the running for an Indian order for 126 fighter jets, by far the largest of its kind today. Few in the US Congress have seen fit to note that an American win might "help" keep the F-16 assembly line at Forth Worth running beyond its scheduled closure in 2008.

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