HOW WE LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND SELL THE BOMB
All sales could be final
When India exploded a nuclear device on May 18, using materials and technology gleaned with Canadian aid, our official response was one of outraged surprise; but, in fact, most international experts were expecting the blast. “The only real surprises,” said Dr. Ralph Lapp, the U.S. physicist and disarmament advocate, “were that it took the Indians so long to perfect the bomb and that any Canadian was surprised when they did.”
Canada’s public posture is that India betrayed the spirit, if not the letter, of longstanding agreements when it entered the nuclear club; but, in fact, an argument can be made that it is Canada, not India, that violated international agreements. Canada is a party to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which enjoins us not to help any other country, directly or indirectly, to obtain nuclear weapons; India has consistently refused to sign the NPT, and has repeatedly indicated that it intended to have its own nuclear explosives, with or without our help.
It might be expected that Ottawa, having been once embarrassed by the misuse of our equipment and technology, will be doubly cautious in the future, and will demand stringent safeguards in atomic energy transactions; but, in fact, we are vigorously pushing the sale of reactors to such unstable na-
tions as South Korea and Argentina, under safeguards that senior officials of the Atomic Energy Control Board — the body charged with seeing that Canada’s atomic materials are not misused — regard as totally inadequate.
“Unless there is strong pressure from Canadian public opinion,” warns John McManus, AECB’s assistant director of material and equipment control, “we’re going to sell Argentina a reactor under conditions that are completely unsafe.”
For more than a decade, Canada has been receiving warnings from the international community and its own experts that India could be using our gift reactor to stockpile ammunition for bombs; those warnings were brushed aside, and the Indian explosion took place. Now,
despite a public stance of injured innocence. we are doing our best to sell equipment and technology which are likely to expand the nuclear club once more, and when, in the fullness of time. South Korea or Argentina sets off a bomb of its very own we will doubtless be enraged anew.
How did w'e get into this mess?
The short, cynical answer to that question is that there is money to be made in reactor sales. The nearly completed sale to Argentina will bring $480 million; the partially completed sale to South Korea will bring $600 million (the difference represents different-sized reactors). The moral climate for these sales was set by Energy Minister Donald Macdonald in an interview with the Washington Post shortly after the Indian explosion. Macdonald put an arms salesman’s logic to work on the nuclear dilemma when he said that atomic safeguards were “an international problem, not a Canadian one.” He asked, “After developing a very viable system, should we not sell it internationally?”
Certainly, commercial gain is a factor in our anxiety to press nuclear sales, come what may; but it is not the onlyfactor, and to understand how we became launched in this dubious business it is necessary to retrace the story of Canada’s nuclear involvement with In-
WE GAVE INDIA THE KEI
dia and the unsuccessful battle to deflect us from our course.
On March 21. 1956, Lester Pearson, then Secretary of State for External Affairs, announced that Canada had agreed to give India a reactor. The announcement was warmly received. We still carried vivid memories of the atomic explosions over Nagasaki and Eliroshima 11 years earlier; we knew, the world knew, that survival depended on deflecting this fearsome pow'er from war to peace. What better place to share our atomic technology than in India, an impoverished nation whose dedication to peace was manifest, a nation that could be trusted to use this new resource for much-needed nuclear power, not for bombs.
So the first Canadian reactor for India was begun; it was called CIR (for CanadaIndia reactor) and it was designed for research. not to generate power — that would come later. It was a CANDU reactor for research. like our ow n at Chalk River; that is, it used ordinary uranium for fuel (instead of the enriched uranium demanded by most U.S.-built reactors), and heavy water (deuterium) to moderate the fission process and as a heat transfer agent. Thus the name CANDU — Canadian Deuterium Uranium. At that time, only Canada was exploring the deuterium-uranium approach, and there were experts, including some of our own. who thought we were barking up the wrong reactor. The Indian agreement, then, was a double triumph; it not only marked us as a generous and responsive people, it provided a showcase for our technical expertise, a sample room for our wares. Nobody, at first, questioned the CIR deal, nobody dreamed that it would one day explode in our faces.
Although no Canadian could buy uranium — let alone atomic equipment —except under rigorous control by the Atomic Energy Control Board, no safeguards were put on CIR. “We felt.” said John McManus of the control board, “that it wouldn’t look right, that we had to take the word of the Indian government.”
That word consisted of one short clause promising not to use CIR for anything but “peaceful purposes,” and there was a megaton-size hole in that clause. What if India wanted to build a bomb for “peaceful purposes,” to carve out harbors, for example. to dig mines or explore for oil?
The key point about a nuclear reactor is that the materials and technology required are essentially very similar to those used to build a bomb. In a way, a reactor is simply a controlled bomb; the fission process is similar, but in a reactor it is always held in
check. Experts in the control board began to worry about CIR long before it was finished. in 1960. And so, when we provided the uranium to fuel its first charge, we asked for a small safeguard — the right to inspect the fuel to make sure that none of our uranium was being diverted to other purposes. India agreed (in fact, the agreement specified that India had a right to inspect one of our nuclear sites, as a quid pro quo, but no attempt was ever made to do so). As it happened, there were start-up problems w'ith CIR; our uranium was onlyused for a short time, and then India supplied its own fuel. That ended any inspection rights we had in connection with CIR. and we did not avail ourselves of the right to inspect the fuel until 1968. when we at last began to get really worried about safety. Two inspections of fuel rods were made, one in 1968. one in 1971; they showed that the uranium had not been diverted, and that was that.
In 1964, India built a uranium separation plant. Most of the uranium in a CANDU reactor is nonfissionable U-238; less than \7c consists of the isotope U-235, which is fissionable and provides the energy. When U-235 is split, it produces neutrons, which are absorbed by the surrounding U-238 in a process that creates plutonium, which is fissionable. and makes dandy bombs. The plutonium is produced in small amounts, and to get good bomb material it must be separated and refined. In 1964. India built the plant that would do the job and, in response to our enquiries, told us that it was thinking of building a fast-breeder reactor (fast-breeders are held by some to be the next generation of atomic power producers; they are powered by a fissionable material, and the reaction process produces another fissionable material. They will in theory produce more fuel than they use; thus “fast breeder”; but there are many kinks in the process, not the least of which is a problem over its safety). India is still thinking about building a fast-breeder reactor; in the meantime, it has been able to stockpile enough plutonium out of CIR to manufacture an estimated 38 atomic bombs.
News of the plutonium separation plant set off a jangle of international alarms, and on November 2. 1964. NDP MP Andrew Brewin rose in the House of Commons to ask the then External Affairs Minister. Paul Martin, about the danger of our reactor being used to provide material for a bomb. Martin replied with a soothing assurance that all was well, an assurance based on nothing more than pious hope and the loophole-ridden 1956 agreement.
ro THE NUCLEAR CLUB
By that time, negotiations were already under way on what was to become the nonproliferation treaty, which eventually came into force in 1970. The NPT bars any party to it from providing nuclear materials to anyone else except under safeguards; it distinguishes between states that already have the bomb, who are permitted to use it for peaceful purposes, and those who don’t, who, if they want to set off a nuclear explosion for commercial reasons, must do so through “appropriate international procedures” (yet to be established) by asking a nuclear state to do the job.
India rejected the NPT forcefully and repeatedly; its reasons were put to me by India’s High Commissioner in Ottawa, Uma Shankar Bajpai:
“What the NPT says is that there is to be one set of rules for those who have the bomb and another for those who don’t. It is the grossest discrimination. We have not forgotten that the first atomic bombs were dropped on Asians when they could have been dropped on Germans. We have not missed the significance of that ... So what we say is that we will never use nuclear explosives for anything but peaceful purposes, and we suggest that our word can be taken as easily as that of Russia or the U.S.A. We say in addition that we favor any treaty that bans nuclear weapons entirely, and is universal in its application; we would sign such a treaty tomorrow. Such a treaty would have to (a) stop the manufacture of bombs, (b) cut down the stockpiles that now exist and (c) ban nuclear tests entirely. We believe in all these things; what we do not believe in is a treaty that says the Americans and Russians and Chinese can do certain things and we cannot.”
What Bajpai said to me this autumn. Indian diplomats were saying in world courts 10 years ago; they made it clear that they rejected the NPT and that they intended, in the absence of a real weapons-ban treaty, to make nuclear explosives for their own use.
Also in 1964. again with massive Canadian aid. India began to build another reactor. not a research toy this time, but a power plant, designed on the lines of the CANDU at Douglas Point, Ontario. There were eventually to be two units, RAPP I and RAPP II (the name comes from Rajasthan Atomic Power Project). RAPP I started producing power in 1973. RAPP II is still under construction. For these units, Canada provided large loans and equipment; as in CIR. most of the money was spent in Canada and. as in CIR. we flew Indian technicians over to learn our atomic secrets. In all Canada trained 271 Indian scientists, at a cost of five million dollars. It was by far
our most precious gift; nuclear materials can be obtained elsewhere, but know-how is irreplaceable.
During the RAPP negotiations, a quarrel erupted among the Canadians who wanted to demand more safeguards from India and those who were more anxious to make sure the deal went through than to quibble over safeguards. John McManus told me. “One side kept saying look, we can use RAPP as a lever; we can say we won’t go ahead unless the Indians agree to safeguard CIR. We knew CIR was naked, here was a chance to do something about it. But the commercial people kept saying that if we don’t give the Indians what they want, they’ll buy it elsewhere, they’ll get it from the French or the Americans. That was the telling argument. Eventually, it went to cabinet, and you know who won.”
One of the problems when this battle of safety vs. salesmanship arose was that only one body — the control board — is responsible for the technical safeguarding aspects, while many other agencies — including Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, which builds the reactors, the Department of Industry, Trade and Commerce, the Export Development Corporation, the Canadian International Development Agency and the Department of External Affairs — all have a stake in expanding Canadian trade. Not only was the tiny (64 employees) AECB outnumbered and outgunned, it was itself divided between those who thought there was nothing to worry about and those who, like McManus, were very worried indeed.
So the bureaucratic structure worked against caution and the salesmen won. RAPP I and RAPP II were placed under safeguards to be enforced by the International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN body centred in Vienna (it did not exist when the CIR deal was signed). Once more, there was a loophole. Under the trilateral agreement between Canada. India and the IAEA, inspections are mandatory, but either Canada or India could end the agreement on six months’ notice after 1976, and then, of course, the inspections would cease.
Even so, there was a minimal safeguard on RAPP I; the chance to use that deal to protect CIR was lost.
In July, 1966, Pakistan, a nation that has been at war with India three times in recent years and tends to be edgy about its neighbor. lodged a formal complaint with the Secretary-General of the UN, charging that India was in the process of building a bomb. Pakistan had made direct complaints to Canada earlier, including a stiff diplomatic note in 1964; they were ignored;
NEXT CUSTOMERS: SOUTE
so was the complaint to the UN. Tariq Hyder. until recently first secretary of the Pakistan embassy in Washington, told me, “After the Indians set off their bomb, I called one of the Canadians 1 had been complaining to and said, 'Well, will you admit we’ve been warning you for years?’ He said, 'We’ve been far too busy to keep track of every little statement on atomic energy.’ ”
In October of 1966, India took the public and formal argument before the UN General Assembly that there could be “peaceful” nuclear explosions, a position it repeated in 1967 and 1968 in rejecting the NPT. Without going into details, India said atomic blasts could be used for such things as opening up harbors, mining and exploiting petroleum resources.
In February, 1968, Robert Winters, then Minister of Trade and Commerce, went to India with a threat that, unless that nation signed the NPT, Canada would cut off nuclear aid. India ignored the threat, went on affirming its opposition to the NPT and continued to collect aid. News reports suggested that India was stockpiling plutonium to make a bomb; one noted, “It has been reliably estimated that Indian scientists could make a bomb within one year.” Again, there was no reaction from Canada.
In January, 1971. when Prime Minister Trudeau stopped in Pakistan en route to the Commonwealth Conference. President Yahya Khan told him personally about his fears that India was making bombs with our aid. Trudeau said he was satisfied wfith the safeguards imposed on India.
In the fallout from that meeting, more news stories appeared. On January 13, 1971, military specialist John Gellner wrote in the Globe and Mail that “India has a supply of weapon-grade plutonium which it could use in nuclear weapons.” Next day, Conservative backbencher Perry Ryan asked External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp, “Is the minister in a position to assure the House that India is not producing and has not produced any weapon-grade plutonium PU-239 since it was supplied with the Canada-India reactor in 1960?”
Sharp responded on January 20, saying that yes. he could give such an assurance, based on the 1956 agreement that CIR would be used only for peaceful purposes (which ignored India’s oft-stated assertion about “peaceful” explosions). “We have no evidence,” said Sharp, “to suggest that the Indian government is not standing firm on the assurance it has given Canada.” We had no such evidence because we hadn’t looked for ourselves, and had brushed aside the evidence proferred by others.
On September 16. 1971, Indian spokesmen at the Continuing Conference on Disarmament at Geneva made it clear that India would construct its own nuclear devices (for “peaceful purposes,” of course) and a number of such possible uses were put forward.
Finally, Canada reacted. On October 1, Prime Minister Trudeau sent a private letter to Prime Minister Gandhi of India, which raised the “concern of the Canadian government regarding any further proliferation of nuclear explosive devices.” Trudeau said that no nuclear explosion was peaceful, and that if India wanted to set off such a blast the NPT provided for it, with the aid of a nuclear power. Mrs. Gandhi w'as having none of it; she replied, on October 12, rejecting the notion that Canada could decide, at this date, the issue of “peaceful” explosions. “The obligations undertaken by our two governments are mutual and they cannot be unilaterally varied,” she wrote. “In these circumstances, it should not be necessary now, in our view, to interpret these agreements in a particular way based on the development of a hypothetical contingency.” She ended by pointing out that India had not signed the NPT, “which is discriminatory.”
Had that exchange been made public in 1971, all hell w'ould have broken loose. The letters were released after the Indian explosion, with a Canadian explanation that Mrs. Gandhi’s use of “hypothetical contingency” implied a promise not to set off a bomb, but neither the context nor the dictionary will support that view. Her letter was a warning that India wanted no part of Canadian restrictions and, indeed, Canada reacted as if we thought a bomb was in the offing. Nuclear aid to India was cut sharply, and the nuclear training program almost snuffed out; up until October, 1971, we trained 263 Indians, since then, w'e have trained eight.
Finally, on May 18, 1974, India set off its bomb, and confirmed that it had been made with plutonium recovered from CIR. External Affairs Minister Sharp, soon to be replaced, called the explosion “most regrettable.”
Some Canadians were surprised — “I may be stupid and naive,” Lome Gray, president of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, told me, “but I did not expect that bomb.” Some were not. “The only thing that I found strange was the timing,” said John McManus of the control board. “After all, there’s no trouble with China right now.”
Well, all of that is in the past. “The important thing.” said McManus’ boss. Dr. D.
KOREA AND ARGENTINA
G. Hurst, president of the control board, “is not to rake over old ashes, but to look ahead, to see what we have learned.”
And what have we learned? Apparently, that there is a strong market for our reactors if we move fast. Canada is try ing to deal off CANDUs to Iran, South Korea, Denmark, Argentina, Romania, Japan, Mexico and Italy. A number of these nations have refused to ratify the NPT, including South Korea and Argentina, the two with whom deals are almost concluded. They are also two dangerously unstable nations. Argentina is being run by the widow of former dictator Juan Perón, flanked by a clutch of military types; it has been in a state of turmoil almost constantly since World War II. South Korea’s President Park, who has appointed himself to run the nation for life without the crude interruption of elections, faces an increasingly unruly populace; he keeps them down by periodic purges and by constantly invoking the military threat posed by the hated North Koreans just across the border. Park with the bomb is a prospect to unsettle the most placid mind.
When we sell these nations the CANDU, we will insist on safeguards and inspection by the IAEA. But what safeguards? The IAEA rules cover the transfer of nuclear equipment (clearly defined) and materials (less clearly defined; is cement for a reactor a nuclear material?), but not the most important ingredient, nuclear technology. It is possible for South Korea to buy a Canadian reactor and use the technology gained with it to build a bomb with equipment sold by someone outside the NPT. Nor is the central safeguard, a materials accountancy system, strong enough to prevent diversion of nuclear materials for bombbuilding. The inspections depend on the goodwill of the nation involved. As Mason Willrich, an American expert, recently told a congressional committee in Washington, “Internationally administered materials accountancy cannot prevent a nation from diverting materials. Neither the IAEA nor any other United Nations organ, contains a security force capable of action to prevent a national government from diversion.”
Despite these worries, the Canadian position has not changed; we are out to sell all the reactors we can. A senior official of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited told me, “The Canadian taxpayer has spent all this money and if he can get it back he deserves it, with the assurance, of course, that reasonable steps are taken ... If we don’t sell these reactors, you can be damn sure somebody else will, and maybe under even worse conditions.”
But what if they aren’t safe? What if other nations choose, like India, to build bombs with our reactors? The official replied, “What the hell more can any country do than call on an agency such as the IAEA to be one’s auditor?”
But if we ourselves have doubts about the IAEA safeguards? “Ah, look, here you get into philosophical arguments.”
I suggested this was like a gun salesman, knowing the machinegun he sold was likely to be used in a bank robbery, justifying himself by say ing that law enforcement was up to the police; he was in the gun-selling game. The reply, once more, was that this was a moral issue, not a legal one, and that was that.
This curious argument was further developed by the AECL Review, Atomic Energy of Canada’s monthly publication, which ran a strident defense of the India deal. The Review was incensed that the critics made no reference “to the supply by the United States of the heavy water” for CIR (we had no heavy water to spare when the deal went through). The U.S. has sold reactors to South Korea and Brazil, and tried to horn in on the Argentine deal, but nobody complains about them. Why not? The Review suspects a dark plot; it suspects that what the naysayers are really after is to steer all the business to the Americans and deny Canada its place in atomic sales.
There is a simpler explanation. Canadians don’t necessarily hold that, because the U.S. does something, that makes it all right. The American record, from Vietnam to Watergate, is not persuasive evidence for allowing the U.S. to set the world’s moral tone; if they want to become involved in the insanity of nuclear proliferation, that doesn’t mean Canadians should simply hold their noses and follow suit. There is no plot to steer atomic business south of the border; there is a concerted effort — and it involves Americans like Dr. Lapp — to halt nuclear proliferation. But there would be little logic in attacking the U.S. for a course of action pursued by our own government without first registering the complaint at home.
For Canadians, the crucial fact is that we have led India by the hand into the age of the bomb; now our hand is out to half a dozen other nations, all of whom feel, no doubt, that they are as worthy to be trusted with the future of mankind as India or Russia or the U.S. How long will it be before someone sets off a bomb in earnest, with our aid? Will there be anyone around then to explain that it wasn't our fault, and to pronounce the whole affair “most regrettable”?