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Why underground nuclear tests can no longer be peaceful

Jayita Sarkar is Albert Gallatin Fellow at Yale University’s Macmillan Center for International and Area Studies, and PhD candidate in the Department of International History at the Graduate Institute Geneva.
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  • February 20, 2013

    On 12 February 2013, North Korea conducted another nuclear test drawing severe criticism from the United Nations Security Council, which called the test a clear threat to international peace and security.1 This is the third time after 2006 and 2009 that the heavily-sanctioned country has conducted an underground nuclear test. In retaliation, the European Union has imposed tougher sanctions on Pyongyang, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his move to attract global attention back to Iran, said that the North Korean test revealed the inability of sanctions to prevent a nuclear weapons programme.2 Kim Jong-un’s government justified the test on grounds of self-defence against US threat,3 clarifying that its intentions are unmistakably security-oriented. Yet, historically, underground nuclear tests had been associated with ‘peaceful nuclear explosions’ (PNEs) until at least India’s nuclear test in May 1974. How did this alter over time?

    It was in 1957 that the United States launched its civil underground nuclear explosions programme called ‘Plowshare’ following the successful Rainier test in September that year. In 1961, the Soviet Union conducted its first civil underground nuclear test. Throughout the 1960s, both the superpowers believed that underground nuclear explosions could be used for peaceful purposes like the creation of underground storage capacity for liquid hydrocarbons, extinguishing fires in oil and gas wells, in situ cracking of heavy hydrocarbons in bituminous shales or sandstones, etc.4 Underground nuclear tests for civil purposes or PNEs were also an important component of the IAEA discussions during the 1960s.5

    India’s underground nuclear test on 18 May 1974 changed all that. Although it called the test a PNE, the international community refused to believe it, accusing India of developing nuclear weapons and imposing sanctions on New Delhi.6 Yet, India’s PNE could not be declared a violation of the existing tenets of international law. This was because first, the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 to which India was an original signatory, allowed underground nuclear testing. Second, India could not be charged with violation of the NPT since it had never signed it. Third, Article V of the NPT stated that ‘potential benefits from any peaceful applications of nuclear explosions will be made available to non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty on a non-discriminatory basis’.7 India’s PNE, however, demonstrated that an underdeveloped non-nuclear weapon state could master the sophisticated technology required for conducting underground nuclear explosions.8 It was also the first dent made on the edifice of the nuclear non-proliferation regime by a non-NPT state.

    The debate that ensued soon after revolved around the difficulty of distinguishing military nuclear explosions from peaceful ones, and thereby reflecting the problem faced by the non-proliferation regime to grapple with an event unprecedented in its history. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), formed in 1974, emerged from the previously existing London Club to control nuclear-related exports. The purpose of the NSG was to prevent non-signatories to the NPT from receiving nuclear technology and information.9 The Threshold Test Ban Treaty signed in July 1974 by the United States and the Soviet Union called for the negotiation of what became known as the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty (PNET) of 1976 (although it did not enter into force until 1990). The PNET allowed the superpowers to carry out PNEs of yield not exceeding 150 kilotons in territories under their own jurisdiction and under the jurisdiction of other states provided they were requested to do so and were in compliance with the yield limitations and the provisions of the NPT. The treaty also instituted a comprehensive system of regulations and verification procedures. The following objectives were attained by this: (a) peaceful nuclear explosions were established as the exclusive preserve of the superpowers, (b) the authority of the NPT was further strengthened for determining PNEs and (c) it established the legal apparatus that stated that ‘there is no essential distinction between the technology of a nuclear explosive device which would be used as a weapon and the technology of a nuclear explosive device used for a peaceful purpose.’10 Meanwhile at the IAEA, the discourse surrounding the PNEs at the ad hoc advisory group meetings shifted from the scientific and technical to the administrative and legal.11

    At the NPT Review Conference of 1975 held in Geneva, the parties to the Treaty observed that PNE technology ‘is still at the stage of development and study’ and that it entails a series of ‘interrelated international legal and other aspects’ that ‘still need to be investigated.’ The Conference conferred the responsibility to pursue study and discussion on PNE technology to the IAEA and also stated that access to PNE technology must ‘not lead to any proliferation of nuclear explosives.’12 This view was reiterated at the Review Conference of 1980. India, being a non-signatory to the NPT, participated in neither Review Conference. Thus, efforts were made to gradually write off Article V from the NPT, until the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty when it automatically became a dead letter.

    Interestingly, PNEs have a curious past. The most important proponent of PNEs in the United States was Edward Teller, the ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’. As early as 1961 and even before his 1968 book The Constructive Uses of Nuclear Explosives, Teller praised the Plowshare programme and called for more nuclear testing. He argued that ‘real security’ and ‘real peace’ depended on the development of nuclear explosives ‘both for defence and for constructive peacetime purposes.’13 Peter Goodchild argues that anxious about negotiations on test ban treaties, Teller supported PNEs and used the economic argument to ensure the continuation of nuclear testing.14

    In other words, PNEs were surrounded by ambiguity of intent from the very onset. Through the retroactive measures (noted above) after May 1974, it was made clear that an underground nuclear test could be ‘peaceful’ only when conducted by or with the assistance of the superpowers. The technological artefact of the nuclear explosive thus became an exclusively military device when in the hands of non-NPT states. Underground nuclear tests stopped short of being peaceful.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. “U.N. Security Council condemns North Korean nuclear test,” Reuters, February 12, 2013, last accessed February 18, 2013.
    • 2. “For Netanyahu, North Korea nuclear test offers lessons on Iran,” Reuters, February 18, 2013, last accessed February 18, 2013.
    • 3. Evan Ramstad, “North Korea Claims Self-Defence Against US,” The Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2013, last accessed February 18, 2013.
    • 4. Bertrand Goldschmidt, The Atomic Complex: A Worldwide Political History of Nuclear Energy (La Grange Park, IL: American Nuclear Society, 1982), pp. 177-78.
    • 5. “Peaceful Nuclear Explosions,” IAEA Bulletin, last accessed February 18, 2013.
    • 6. Canada ended all nuclear cooperation with India in 1976 after several rounds of negotiation since it was believed that India had used plutonium produced by the Canadian-supplied CIRUS reactor for the test.
    • 7. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, April 22, 1970, accessed February 18, 2013.
    • 8. The congratulatory telegram from Andre Giraud of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) to Homi N. Sethna of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, felicitated this ‘technological mastery’ by India. “Nos voisins et les autres pays n’ont rien à craindre de l’Inde déclare Mme Gandhi,” Le Monde, May 28, 1974, Carton 2252, Questions atomiques: explosion indienne, 1973-June 1980, French ForeignMinistryArchives, La Courneuve, France.
    • 9. The website of the NSG states that ‘the NSG was created following the explosion in 1974 of a nuclear device by a non-nuclear-weapon State, which demonstrated that nuclear technology transferred for peaceful purposes could be misused’. Without naming names, it expounds well its existential rationale. “History of the NSG,” Nuclear Suppliers Group, accessed February 18, 2013.
    • 10. “Text of the PNET Treaty,” US State Department, accessed February 18, 2013,
    • 11. Robert S. Anderson, “The Peaceful Nuclear Explosion Debates,” paper presented at NPIHP conference of the University of Vienna, 16-18 September 2012.
    • 12. Proceedings of the NPT Review Conference of 1975, Geneva, NPT/CONF/30/Rev.1., accessed February 18, 2013., accessed September 22, 2012.
    • 13. Edward Teller, “The Case for Continuing Nuclear Tests,” Headline Series 145 (1961): 57.
    • 14. Peter Goodchild, Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), pp. 284 – 95.