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It's "politically correct" for us as Indian citizens today to take "national pride" in the nuclear tests that have been recently conducted on this soil. Our scientists even managed to evade US spy satellites, so much so that the CIA and the rest of the world were caught unwares. Millions and billions of rupees must have been spent on these tests. Why not?

Experimenter Adjusting a Copper LaserAfter all, the Pakistani "Ghauri" missile, and China's ostensible support to it, are obviously disconcerting signs to any nation. Besides, it's true that that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has failed to address the fears of many nations and was termed "discriminatory" in nature. The US has only added to the confusion over the CTBT by conducting `sub-critical' explosions. Given these circumstances, should India lie back and be a sitting duck? To paraphrase the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) plea to the country: We have only done what was necessary to counter the threat from our neighbours (Pakistan and China). Even if the world imposes sanctions, please stand by us (Indians) and bear the hardships (read `sanctions') with grace. This is the least you can do for your country.

Polls conducted by some Indian TV channels and newspapers indicate that a majority of Indians support the government's stand on nuclear issues. Convincing eh! This clearly means one thing. If I/we as an individual or group beg to differ, I/we risk being labelled `unpatriotic' in a 'democratic' country.

Our country has conducted five underground nuclear tests -- "light earthquakes" as seismologists have termed them, but capable of destroying the entire Earth if taken to their logical conclusion --, and we are expected to join the bandwagon and say `Hurrah!'.

Pardon us for not leaping with joy. That `Our Bharat' has been home to sages who preached `non-violence' down the ages; that we as a country have always been touting the likes of Mahatma Gandhi is altogether sidetracked. And, however much our politicians would want us to believe, one does not have to stretch one's imagination too far that Lord Buddha would never have smiled in the face of a nuclear test.

Let me explain.
Job security has been thrown to the winds what with retrenchment being the order of the day, thanks to globalisation. Many of those thrown out of their jobs have either committed suicide or are living in abject poverty. There aren't many jobs today. The scores of unemployed are a disillusioned lot. Many of them have taken up `jobs' with the underworld and are killing their own brethren for lucre, the spate of killings in Mumbai city being a case in point. Riots in the name of religion are being more a rule, rather than an exception.

Further, India will have five to eight million HIV positive cases by 2000 AD and will become the GLOBAL AIDS CAPITAL, according to UNAIDS. Moreover, India has the unhappy distinction of being home to the largest number of child labourers in the world. Approximately 45 million children are employed in the organised and unorganised sectors and they work between 10 to 12 hours daily for an average monthly wage of Rs 250/- in many cases. Thousands of us Indians do not even have the basic `roti' (food), `kapda' (clothing) and `makan' (shelter). Thirty-six per cent are below the poverty line and are now told to bear further hardship. The list is unending.

In the light of the above, we are still expected to believe that India had to go nuclear to avoid threat to the lives of Indian citizens. Are we Indians alive anyway, having being deprived of decent living standards? Should the Indian government, or for that matter, any government of a developing country spend billions on nuclear stockpiles OR, invest at least a part of it, on ameiliorating the lot of its people?

By Leslie D'Monte

Background Since the first nuclear test at Alamagordo, New Mexico in July 1945, the five nuclear weapons states -- the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China -- have conducted over 2,000 tests. Every test, costing up to $70 million each, helped to add new generations of weapons to arsenals of the nuclear states.

RocketsIn September 1996, the text for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was finally agreed at the United Nations in New York. By mid-October, a total of 125 countries had signed.

For the treaty to enter into force at the earliest possible opportunity (October 1998) all 44 countries on the entry-into-force list need to have ratified the treaty before the end of April 1998. This has not happened.

Will a test ban end the development of new types of nuclear weapons? A comprehensive nuclear test ban will not end the nuclear arms race, but is a key step in that direction. It will make the development and improvement of new, advanced weapon designs by the nuclear weapons states much more difficult. Although it is possible to produce relatively simple nuclear weapons without testing, a test ban will help to prevent development of weapons more sophisticated than those in current arsenals. It also will limit weapon designers' first-hand knowledge of how nuclear weapons perform.

However, the nuclear weapons states will still be able to carry out substantial weapon-related work under a test ban. The US Department of Energy plans to spend more than $20 billion over the next ten years on the "Science Based Stockpile Stewardship" program, which is intended to guarantee the safety and reliability of US nuclear weapons without testing. US policy states that no new nuclear weapons are being developed, but many critics of the stockpile stewardship program believe that it would give US weapons laboratories substantial capability to design new weapons without carrying out tests. Further, the line between modifying existing nuclear weapons (which is allowed under US policy) and creating new designs (which is restricted under US policy) has not been clearly defined.


What are "subcritical" tests? Do we need them? Nuclear Missle LaunchOn April 4, 1996, the Department of Energy announced plans to conduct two subcritical experiments during 1997. The first was conducted on July 2 and the other is expected some time during the fall. Originally, these experiments were planned for the summer of 1996, but they were delayed to avoid complicating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty negotiations in Geneva. Now that the treaty has been signed, the subcritical experiments are back.

These experiments involve high explosives and fissile materials (in this case plutonium) and are conducted underground at the Nevada Test Site. Technically, they are not a breach of the test ban treaty as long as they are subcritical, that is, as long as they do not produce an uncontrolled chain reaction. However, underground experiments at the test site are difficult to distinguish from nuclear tests there. If the United States sets the precedent of conducting underground experiments with high explosives and plutonium, then other weapon states can be expected to do so as well. This will raise verification issues.

Moreover, these tests create the impression that the United States is skirting the limits of the test ban, which undermines the treaty. India is likely to cite subcritical experiments as evidence that the test ban treaty is discriminatory and that the United States is pursuing new weapons designs. This could hurt the treaty's prospects for ratification by other nations and thus for its entry into force.

While the Department of Energy states that such experiments are "essential" to maintain stockpile safety and reliability, there is no independent confirmation of this. A recent study by the JASONs (a panel of senior defense consultants to the government) found that the subcritical experiments will provide valuable scientific information, but did not claim that they are essential. The JASONs also recommend that future experiments be conducted above ground and state that "there is no claim that the data from these experiments are needed immediately." Similar experiments have been conducted above ground at Los Alamos. Since there is no urgency, a delay of five years or so to prepare for aboveground subcritical experiments is a possible alternative.

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