Skip to content

SPECIAL GUEST ARTICLE: Nuclear Duck Soup by Dr. Ramana Dhara

This article has been printed with permission from the author.  It first appeared in India Abroad

Now that the Indo-US nuclear treaty has passed both houses of Congress and President Bush has signed the bill, it is time to reflect on the reasons why India and many other countries are pursuing nuclear energy. In trying to understand this phenomenon, one can apply the expression ‘if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck’.

‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’.

Let us take the case of India, whose proposed recent nuclear program expansion India can be understood in terms of this proverbial duck. India has the world’s second largest reserves in thorium, an alternate fuel to uranium. Energy production from the thorium fuel cycle is more efficient and less capable of generating weapons-grade plutonium. So why then has India energetically pursued an Indo-US nuclear treaty? Because the treaty will a) ensure a steady supply of uranium from the Nuclear Supply Group and b) allow it to ‘officially’ join the nuclear club. It is well known that uranium fuel provides the opportunity for generation of weapons-grade plutonium.  Rather than being an atoms-for-peace duck (which it was from 1950-1990s), the Indian nuclear effort has morphed into an atoms-for-weapons duck. The Indian Dept. of Atomic Energy consumes 25% of the national science research & development budget, yet nuclear power accounts for only 2.5% of the country’s total energy output. It does not take an atomic scientist to figure out where the money is actually going.

By supporting the Indo-US nuclear treaty, the Bush administration has de facto supported India’s aspirations for nuclear expansion. They were persuaded by the fact that India has never attempted regional invasion, wants to protect its own borders, and never proliferated its nuclear technology. This is in contrast to Pakistan, which has become the equivalent of a nuclear Wal-Mart. When India conducted nuclear testing in 1998, Pakistan responded tit-for-tat. Some, but not all, of the Indian middle class supported the Indian tests, perhaps out of a sense of security. The poor in both countries either did not know or care about the tests. Similarly, Indians residing in the US have largely supported the nuclear treaty.  The notion that having a weapon in your home provides security against an aggressor has now become a global idea, albeit a dangerous one. What better weapon to possess than a nuclear warhead?  Let us recall Robert Oppenheimer’s quote from the Bhagvad Gita when he witnessed the first atomic explosion, ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’. Appalled by its destructive power, Oppenheimer went on to become an anti-bomb activist.

But who are the perceived aggressors? It is unfortunate that countries are adopting the notion of weapons-make-me-secure when they can ill afford them. North Korea and Iran certainly have this as an unstated objective, and have set off alarms all over the world. They have been branded by the Bush administration as part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, whose third member, Iraq, has already been attacked for possessing the now-debunked WMDs. In pursuing nuclear technology, these two countries are in effect saying ‘don’t mess with us nuclear states’.  India, on the other hand, wants to bring its program into the open, achieve parity with China, gain respect as a regional power, and procure a Security Council seat. Amartya Kumar Sen, the Nobel-winning economist, however, notes in his book, ‘The Argumentative Indian’ that ‘if a country could blast its way into the Security Council, this would give an incentive to other countries to do the same’. Predictably, the 1998 Indo-Pak tests precipitated a regional arms race.

Perceptions, as we well know, are extremely important and the world has watched the United States playing the role of nuclear policeman without abiding by its own commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to eliminate its arsenal.  Two decades after the Cold War, Russia and the United States together possess nearly 26,000 nuclear weapons. It is eminently clear that nations will not accept this inequitable distribution of nuclear capability so the scramble for nuclear technology by means fair or foul is bound to continue. In addition to the five established nuclear ducks sitting on their radioactive eggs, we have India the passive-aggressive duck, Pakistan the promiscuous duck, Israel the duck still in the closet, the ‘Axis-of-Evil’ ducks, Japan the nervous duck, and a host of ducks-in-waiting proclaiming the fig leaf of nuclear energy. All of them have concluded that this form of energy is a double-edged tool which can be easily converted from a plowshare to a sword. In addition, Al-Qaeda has openly stated its intention to acquire material to produce a nuclear device, heightening the danger of nuclear terrorism.

The current scramble for this technology has heightened the risk of nuclear proliferation. This makes it imperative that the public and policy makers be educated on the dangers of proliferation and threat of nuclear war. Abolition of nuclear weapons by all countries is the only way to create a level playing field. Anything less would be discriminatory and unethical. As Arundhati Roy reminded us in her essay ‘The End of Imagination’,”If there is a nuclear war, our foes will not be China or America or even each other. Our foe will be the earth herself. The very elements – the sky, the air, the land, the wind and water — will all turn against us. Their wrath will be terrible.”

Ramana Dhara, MD, ScD

Adjunct Clinical Professor
Morehouse School of Medicine
& Rollins School of Public Health of Emory Univ.
Atlanta, GA 30078

Former Member, International Medical Commission on Bhopal