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A 'dirty bomb' can spell nuke disaster in S. Asia

Even a small nuclear weapon explosion in India or Pakistan could produce more casualties than those resulting from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, says a report from a leading US think tank.

india Updated: Feb 17, 2004 15:30 IST

Even a small nuclear weapon explosion in India or Pakistan could produce more casualties than those resulting from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, says a report from a leading think tank.

Much work is needed to reduce nuclear dangers in South Asia, especially since an India-Pakistan conflict over Jammu and Kashmir could lead to "unintended escalation", says the report from the Henry L. Stimson Centre.

"Commonsense and responsible nuclear stewardship" are key to avoiding unintended escalation and nuclear dangers, said the report titled, "Reducing Nuclear Dangers in South Asia".

The event was held at the Henry L. Stimson Centre's office by its founding president Michael Krepon. He said South Asia was going through a difficult phase. India and Pakistan are the only two states possessing nuclear weapons that fire upon each other's forces on a routine basis. These fire-fights along the Line of Control (LoC), which divides Kashmir between both countries, have escalatory potential.

Krepon explained the various scenarios of an accidental or unintended nuclear conflagration and said that, depending on location and yield, even a small nuclear weapon explosion in India or Pakistan could produce more casualties than those resulting from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Even radioactive contamination from a "dirty bomb" in a major commercial centre could have significant economic, psychological, and political impacts without producing many fatalities, he said.

He also stressed at length the dangers of "radiological terrorism" wherein terrorists could acquire material to quickly assemble a "dirty bomb".

Material that could be used to make dirty bombs resides in many poorly guarded hospitals and civilian research labs in India and Pakistan, Krepon said, adding that these facilities are very susceptible to "insider" threats such as a security guard or a hospital worker who is sympathetic to an extremist group and who aids in the theft of this material.

The report recommended specific nuclear risk reduction measures to prevent and reduce the consequences of nuclear weapons' use. The recommendations were developed by participants from India and Pakistan with extensive backgrounds in crisis management, military operations, diplomacy and intelligence.

The participants suggested concrete measures to demonstrate responsible nuclear stewardship, including the establishment of nuclear risk reduction centres and arrangements to reduce dangers associated with missile tests.

Participants also noted the importance of developing a better understanding of each other's nuclear doctrine and terminology on nuclear issues, as well as steps to reduce the likelihood that terrorists could acquire nuclear material.

The collaborative spirit in which this project was undertaken offers hope that nuclear risk reduction measures can be negotiated and implemented once substantive dialogue between the governments of India and Pakistan resumes.

The report has recommended five "useful, practical and doable" steps in the near term to avoid the dangers of a nuclear conflict in South Asia.

-- Establishment of "national risk reduction centres" to serve as focal points for the administration of confidence-building measures

-- Missile-related measures to formalise and properly implement the agreement concerning prior notification of missile launches; to forgo missile flight tests in the direction of the other country; to flight test missiles only from designated test ranges; and to provide advance notification of the movement of a missile for training purposes

-- Clarifying terminology or developing common terminology on nuclear-related programmes, deployment and doctrine could reduce misunderstanding and increase crisis stability

-- Leadership declaration affirming responsible nuclear stewardship could help defuse nuclear dangers and facilitate an improvement in bilateral relations

-- Increased awareness of nuclear dangers, particularly with regard to the possible acquisition of nuclear materials by terrorist groups.

First Published: Feb 17, 2004 15:30 IST