India gets bolder on nuclear tests: they will go ahead

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

After about three years of dithering, India has made up its mind on its nuclear policy: It will not hesitate to carry out nuclear tests if they are in the national interest.

This decisive change of course is the result of Indira Gandhi's return to power.

In deciding that India would keep its options open on nuclear testing, Mrs. Gandhi reverses a commitment made by former Prime Minister Morarji Desai that the country would not carry out a second nuclear test.

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Mrs. Gandhi, who was prime minister when India carried out its first nuclear explosion in May 1974 for "peaceful and scientific uses," announced the shift in policy just days after Indo-United States nuclear cooperation came, technically, to a close March 10.

The US Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978 made March 10, 1980, the cutoff date for all nuclear supplies to countries like India that have not signed the nonproliferation treaty or accepted full-scope safeguards.

At stake is enriched uranium fuel for the 400-megawatt Tarapur nuclear power plant set up with US aid.

Like Mrs. Gandhi, Mr. Desai had rejected the treaty, as well as the safeguards, as discriminatory. With the US pointing out that the nuclear nonproliferation act supersedes its earlier agreement with India on Tarapur and that supplies would cease after March 10, 1980, Mr. Desai made a gesture to the Carter administration:

He pledged not to carry out further nuclear tests, if only for the time being. Under the domestic pressure that followed this concession, he rationalized his stand, saying India would never have an explosion but would go in for a "blast," if necessary, in the interest of scientific research.

The US had begun withholding shipments even before the act took effect but, apparently confused by Mr. Desai's stand, allowed two shipments to go through. Requests for two more shipments were pending on March 10, the cutoff date. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is to decide on these requests.

India maintains that under the agreement supplies have to continue for the full 30-year period, and the recent US act (of 1978) cannot supersede it.

Even if the two shipments -- requested in 1978 and 1979 -- go through, India-US nuclear cooperation has to grind to a halt.

Mrs. Gandhi had been blasting away at Mr. Desai's nuclear policy, suggesting that the commitment to suspend tests was a surrender jeopardizing India's nuclear research for peaceful uses.

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