ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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China's Bomb and Disarmament

This article, published in the 31 October 1964 issue of the Economic Weekly, came at a time when India was debating the cost and efficacy of a nuclear bomb programme. 

Homi Bhabha's radio broadcast on nuclear disarmament on last Saturday, U N Day, was a queer mixture of sound sense and gross oversimplification. Borrowing figures from an American paper on use of atomic explosions for excavation for water diversion, submitted to last month's conference on peaceful uses of atomic energy in Geneva, Bhabha told listeners that an atom bomb of the same potency as the one used in Hiroshima - that is, a 10-kiloton bomb would cost just Rs 17.5 lakhs to make. And a vastly more powerful one, a two-megaton bomb, could be made for Rs 30 lakhs. Further, a country could build up a respectable nuclear stockpile of 50 ten-kiloton bombs for less than Rs 10 crores and a formidable arsenal of 50 two-megaton bombs for Rs 15 crores, or about 2 per cent of India's current annual defence outlay.
One does not have to be an atomic scientist to say that these figures are meaningless. Rs 17 lakhs, or for that matter Rs 170 lakhs or Rs 1700 lakhs, do not give even an idea of the cost of a nuclear bomb programme. Actually, the costs of creating the initial facilities and of continued research and experimentation which is the unavoidable concomitant of nuclear power status are still near-astronomical, true though it may be that the advance and dispersion of knowledge now enable aspirants to short circuit many stages in the development of a nuclear bomb and to save substantially on the figure of $2,000 million which is an estimate of what it cost the United States to build the Hiroshima bomb in 1945.
However, Bhabha's suggestion that a number of countries can become nuclear powers if they set their hearts on it is valid and important, amazingly superficial though his cost estimates are. The proportion of any country's resources which can be diverted for a defence build-up is a matter of political decision and the upper limits can be stretched considerably. As for the technical know-how, a number of countries, in cluding India, could develop it with concentrated effort over months rather than years - 18 months is the figure Bhabha has been freely quoting for India. Finally, plutonium from nuclear-power reactors provides the nuclear material though facilities for producing uranium 235 - which China appears to have- are still exhorbitantly expensive and technologically difficult to build.
Thus, given the political motivation, a number of countries can develop nuclear devices. Of course, it will be years before they can be on par with the two nuclear super-powers, but the head-on start which the United States and the Soviet Union have had on the rest of the world will not deter new nuclear aspirants; rather the monopoly of nuclear weapons by a few countries provides the rationale for other countries trying to become nuclear powers themselves.
That was Bhabha's point. Unless the countries which possess nuclear weapons take steps to give them up, there will be a compelling reason for others to develop similar weapons. This is exactly what China and France - has been saying. In China's case the hostility of the United States, which refuses even to recognise the existence of the People's Republic, gives a special edge to her need for nuclear weapons. As the rethinking in India sparked by China's nuclear explosion demonstrates, test ban treaties or even the good intentions of countries are no guarantee against the spread of nuclear weapons. Circumstances may confront any country with a choice between being forced into a position of dependence on one of the existing nuclear powers - though, as Cuba realised two years ago, even such dependence affords only imperfect protection - and trying to develop its own nuclear defence. Which country can be blamed if it chooses the latter alternative?
The ball is thus with the nuclear powers. If the spread of nuclear weapons is to be prevented - and there is no question that it needs to be -the nuclear powers must move speedily towards disarmament. In any case, China's achievement has demonstrated that they cannot hope to preserve their monopoly of nuclear power for any length of time.
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