The success of virtual nuclear testing has set the stage for ratification of the nuclear test ban treaty, but India still wants to conduct nuclear tests. A breach of norms against testing should invite universal condemnation and punitive action, and not be enabled by a waiver of sanctions

by Riaz Khokhar

Last month’s fusion ignition breakthrough by scientists in the US reinforced the multilateral norm against live nuclear tests and advanced the earlier work of confining nuclear explosions to within simulation labs. However, it could be bad news for India, which has in the past argued for a resumption of testing to validate its nuclear weapon designs.

The nuclear fusion breakthrough came on December 5, when physicists at the US Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility were able to produce more energy from fusion than had been used to power the experiment.

The fusion ignition lasted less than a second, but a sustainable chain reaction would allow scientists to test modern nuclear devices on computers, with no need to detonate nuclear bombs in the real world.

With America not conducting any live tests since its unilateral moratorium in 1992, US nuclear scientists switched to supercomputers, lasers and other experimental capabilities to maintain the reliability and performance of the country’s nuclear deterrent.

In 2020, US scientists and other experts opposed any resumption of nuclear testing, following reports that the Trump administration had discussed the idea as a potential warning to Russia and China. Scientists have acquired more knowledge about the physics of nuclear explosions via computer simulations than they did through the live tests prior to 1992.

The success of virtual nuclear testing and the system of compliance verification have set the stage for the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which was concluded in 1996 and signed by 186 countries but has yet to come into force.

Indeed, India’s hawks have talked of the need to conduct nuclear tests when the prospects of ratification rise. This first happened after US president Barack Obama’s speech in Prague in April 2009, in which he said he would immediately pursue US ratification of the treaty.

K. Santhanam, a disgruntled senior scientist at the Defence Research and Development Organisation – which controls the military aspect of India’s nuclear program – alleged his government’s long-standing position and publicly disclosed that India’s 1998 nuclear test had underperformed. He insisted on another test to revalidate the nation’s nuclear capability before signing the treaty. (This claim is baseless as former NSA MK Narayanan clarified that Santhanam's allegations was "horrific". He said India has verified its thermonuclear capabilities and the data of the test was shared across the security establishment).

After the Trump administration’s test discussions came to light, Indian experts thought it was “good news” for India to verify its nuclear weapon designs through renewed testing. Following Joe Biden’s election as US president in 2021, he was expected to build on the Obama-era legacy of recommitting to ratifying the treaty.

Against these prospects, a 2022 report by an India expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace highlighted possible ways for the US to augment India’s nuclear capability, including by helping New Delhi secure weapons designs. If this proved legally questionable, Washington could consider a sanctions waiver if India chose to conduct live testing at some point in the future.

The first proposal would appear to put the US in violation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, under which nuclear weapons states cannot share critical technology with non-nuclear-weapons states.

Besides, India might already have effective nuclear weapons designs as it has been working on them since the 1980s. And it would come as no surprise if Russia – India’s long-standing strategic partner – had assisted New Delhi in mastering weapon designs or had covertly supplied proven designs.

Clearly, any nuclear tests carried out by India – or a waiving of sanctions for doing so – would undermine decades of work, potentially rendering irrelevant the huge investment in computer-based nuclear experiments and verification compliance technologies. And it could spark rounds of testing by other existing and potential nuclear weapons states.

Finally, other countries in the region would be quick to condemn the testing, given the potential to provoke strategic instability, nuclear weapons proliferation and a nuclear arms race.

To strengthen the multilateral norms against nuclear testing, the US should encourage actions that go beyond unilateral moratoriums. Until the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty comes into force, one near-term strategy could be to facilitate joint statements from nuclear rivals that legally bind states. In any case, a breach of norms against testing should always invite universal condemnation and punitive action.

Riaz Khokhar is a retired Pak diplomat and a research associate at the Centre for International Strategic Studies (CISS) and a former Asia Studies visiting fellow at the East-West Centre in Washington