US, India Open Can of Nuclear Worms

NEW DELHI – More than 30 years after the United States walked out of a nuclear cooperation agreement with India because the latter conducted an atomic test, the two countries have agreed to resume collaboration in civilian nuclear energy.

A joint-statement issued by U.S. President George W. Bush and visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Washington on Tuesday said the U.S. would now "work with friends and allies to adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy and trade with India."

Essentially, this means that Washington has now accepted India as a nuclear weapons state (NWS), although it is euphemistically referred to as "a state with advanced nuclear technology."

That would entail a dilution of the global nuclear regime, founded on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which only recognizes five NWS. All five crossed the atomic threshold before 1967 while India became a self-declared NWS only in 1998.

The U.S.-India agreement is likely to run into problems on the supply side, in the U.S. and in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group comprising 44 relatively industrialized states, as well as on the recipient side, India.

Under the agreement signed between Bush and Singh, the U.S. has promised to sell nuclear materials and equipment to India and also to involve it in "advanced" areas of research.

Interestingly, this could mean a role for India in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which will experiment with fusion reactions that release energy when nuclei are forced together – unlike fission in which nuclei are split to release energy. In return, India would "assume the same responsibilities" and "acquire the same benefits and advantages as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology," which could only be read as nuclear weapons states.

Besides "working to prevent the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," India would take a series of steps toward "identifying and separating civilian and military nuclear facilities and programs."

India would also be required to file a declaration regarding its civilians facilities with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and place them under its safeguards, continue its "unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing," and work with the U.S. for the "conclusion of a multilateral Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty."

India would also "secure nuclear materials and technology through comprehensive export control legislation" and through "adherence to Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) guidelines," even though it is not a member of either grouping.

There are deep divisions within the U.S. establishment over restructuring the global nuclear order to accommodate India. For instance, security experts like Ashley J. Tellis advocate that the U.S. should integrate India into the global nonproliferation regime by treating it as a de facto nuclear state and transferring nuclear technology to new facilities, but under safeguards.

Others like George Perkovich argue that the "the U.S. and others should not adjust the nuclear nonproliferation regime to accommodate India’s desire for access to nuclear technology. The costs of breaking faith with non-nuclear weapons states such as Japan, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Sweden, and others who forswore nuclear weapons [are] too high to warrant accommodating India’s nuclear desires."

These states are also NSG members and could put up stiff resistance to Bush’s promise to relax the global nonproliferation regime. The NSG’s guidelines are tougher than many IAEA safeguards.

Resistance is likely from within the Indian establishment too. "The first problem with the agreement is that it misses the point about the extremely limited scope for meaningful nuclear cooperation between India and U.S.," argues A. Gopalakrishnan, a nuclear engineer and former chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (IAERB).

"The U.S. has no worthwhile current expertise in the design, construction, operation, maintenance, or safety of any of the type of reactors existing or envisaged in the Indian nuclear power program," Gopalakrishnan said.

India’s reactors include two obsolete U.S.-built enriched uranium-boiling water reactors. more than a dozen reactors that burn natural uranium with heavy water, and fast-breeder reactors. The U.S. has no commercial natural uranium-based heavy water reactors, the mainstay of the Indian nuclear power program

While India could change its nuclear technology trajectory from natural to enriched uranium and import U.S.-made reactors, this would make it too dependent, as India has not been able to enrich uranium in large enough quantities.

External dependence is unacceptable to many Indian policymakers, especially in the Department of Atomic Energy (AD), which has had an unpleasant experience with procuring enriched uranium fuel for two U.S.-built reactors at Tarapur, near the western port city of Mumbai.

India needs raw uranium too because its existing mines are rapidly depleting and there is popular resistance to the opening of new mines. Importing uranium will need relaxation of NSG guidelines, and the U.S. has promised to bring this about.

"Yet, it is far from clear that the other 43 members of the NSG will agree," says a high-level AD source, who requested anonymity. "In the past, the NSG failed to reach a consensus on supply of enriched uranium for Tarapur. The guidelines demand full-scope safeguards under the IAEA. This is something we in the AD are unwilling to fall in line with."

The same source said it is difficult to isolate India’s civilian nuclear facilities and activities from military ones. Often, the two occur in the same location or laboratory. So having IAEA inspectors will interfere with India’s "sovereignty."

"Besides, most AD scientists would be loath to subject, say, fast- breeder reactors to IAEA safeguards. They are the next stage in our energy independence plans, and will pave the way for the use of thorium, of which India has an abundance. We in the AD believe in the doctrine of self-reliance and independence in matters nuclear," the source said.

However, this belief is not supported by facts. In the past, India has lawfully imported or clandestinely bought nuclear technology or materials from diverse sources like the U.S., China, the former USSR, Russia, France, Norway, and Britain.

But the idea of nuclear self-reliance remains an article of faith with many AD officials and scientists. One of them, A.N. Prasad, a former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, has been quoted as saying that allowing IAEA safeguards "goes against the national interest."

Thus the Indo-U.S. deal does not have the full support of the principal Indian agency responsible for its execution. It is also likely to run into rough weather politically because there is no broad consensus on the issue of safeguards or conformity with NSG and MTCR guidelines.

There is the trickier issue of India agreeing to extend its moratorium on conducting nuclear weapons tests. In 1995-96, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was vehemently opposed by a cross-section of political parties but after the 1998 blasts, India unilaterally declared a moratorium on further tests.

Reiterating that commitment in a joint declaration with the U.S. is sure to raise fears about (a) loss of sovereignty and (b) vulnerability to pressure from Washington, and is fraught with political consequences at home.

The emphasis in the agreement on promoting nuclear power to meet "growing global energy demands in a cleaner and more efficient manner" is likely to invite opposition from India’s environmentalist movement.

Environmentalists have pointed to the grave hazards posed by nuclear technology through its propensity for serious accidents, and the problem of high-level radioactive wastes that remain menacing for tens of thousands of years.

(Inter Press Service)

Read more by Praful Bidwai

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau’s Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.