Bumpy Ride for Indo-US Nuclear Deal

NEW DELHI – The "nuclear cooperation" agreement signed by United States President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, six months ago in Washington, has run into trouble over separation of India’s civilian installations from the military.

As a result of this major hurdle, the "one of a kind" deal is unlikely to be fleshed out and approved by the two sides before Bush’s first-ever visit to India, expected to begin on March 1.

The July 18 deal is meant to legitimize and "normalize" India’s nuclear weapons and facilitate resumption of civilian nuclear commerce with this country, which has been under technology embargoes since it first exploded a nuclear device in 1974.

The unsuccessful outcome of the third round of talks on the agreement on Jan. 19-20 in the Indian capital is likely to dampen the high tone that was originally set for the Bush visit, which takes place amid Washington’s offer to "help India become a Great Power in the 21st century."

Until India’s nuclear facilities are separated under civilian and military categories, the former cannot be placed under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog.

India has over 80 nuclear facilities and installations, including 15 power reactors and an unspecified number of military-related installations.

India and the U.S. have been doing some hard bargaining over which facilities should be included in the civilian and military lists. The U.S. is pressing India to expand the list of facilities to be brought under IAEA safeguards.

But India says safeguards should be "voluntary," as applicable to the nuclear weapons-states (NWSs) recognized under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Disagreements between the two governments are now spilling over into the Indian media in the form of polemical attacks, in which India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) figures prominently.

Supporters of the U.S. position say there is a sharp divergence in approach between the DAE and the prime minister’s office (PMO). The DAE is accused of being insular, inflexible, and resistant to international cooperation.

Supporters of the Indian government’s stance say the DAE’s proposal was approved by the PMO before being put on the table and is meant to maximize India’s future options and not limit the size of its nuclear arsenal.

"This reflects only one side of the debate on the nuclear deal," says M.V. Ramana, a physicist and researcher at Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, located in the southern city of Bangalore.

"This is the nationalist or pseudo-nationalist side, which assumes that nuclear weapons are necessary for India’s independence and sovereignty. But the real debate is between the pro-bomb and peace viewpoints. The peace movement holds India doesn’t need nuclear weapons for its security. Nor does the U.S.," Ramana told IPS in an interview.

However, says Ramana, it appears certain that the Indo-U.S. talks have run into trouble. "It is not clear if and how quickly their differences can be resolved."

The sharpest differences pertain to India’s fast-breeder reactor program. These are special reactors that use fission caused by fast neutrons and burn highly concentrated or enriched fuel. Theoretically, they generate more fissile material than they consume.

Under the latest proposal made to the U.S., India would keep its "experimental" fast-breeder reactors outside the civilian list. It would also like two civilian power reactors near Chennai, built in the 1980s, to be exempted from IAEA inspections.

Above all, India would like facilities at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, near Mumbai, to be spared external inspections. Some of them are critical to its nuclear weapons program. These facilities include CIRUS, a small reactor built with Canadian and U.S. help and commissioned in 1960, which produces weapons-grade plutonium.

India has indicated "flexibility" on CIRUS. Under the agreement signed in the 1950s with the U.S. and Canada, CIRUS was only meant for "peaceful" uses, but India reprocessed spent- fuel to explode its first bomb in 1974.

However, India might hang tough on fast breeders. India currently has one operational fast "test" reactor of 20-year-old vintage and is building a "prototype" 500MW reactor.

The U.S. wants both reactors under safeguards. It cites the example of Japan, two of whose reactors (Joyo and Monju) are safeguarded. But India says Japan is a non-NWS under the NPT and the July 18 agreement allows India "the same responsibilities and practices" and "the same benefits and advantages" as the NWSs.

Unless this issue is resolved, fast breeders could be the deal-breaker.

"It is possible that some DAE officials want to have the option of producing nuclear fuel for weapons in these unsafeguarded reactors," says Ramana. "So they are seeking exemption for them. Another possible reason is that the MAPS complex might also house the testing facilities for the nuclear reactor which India is developing for its submarines. Indian authorities probably don’t want IAEA inspectors lurking around there."

Whatever the reasons, the U.S. has told India that it will not be easy to "sell" the agreement to its Congress for ratification unless there is a satisfactory resolution of the civilian-military separation issue. India has also told the U.S. that it will find it hard to generate domestic acceptance for a deal that limits the size of India’s arsenal or future capabilities.

The next weeks and months are likely to see some more tough bargaining on all the disputed issues. These will determine what happens both in the U.S. Congress and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group NSG), a 45-member voluntary grouping without UN status.

Unless the NSG too approves the agreement, it cannot lead to resumption of civilian nuclear commerce between India and the rest of the world even as India gets to keep its nuclear weapons.

The U.S.-India nuclear deal presents an unprecedented challenge to the global nuclear nonproliferation order. It proposes a one-time special exception for India under it. If India succeeds in getting such an exception, the deal will breed resentment across the globe – in Pakistan, North Korea, and, above all, Iran.

Iran has already accused the U.S. and India of double standards. As its case moves toward a likely reference to the UN Security Council, Iran will certainly raise the "double standards" pitch. Neither that nor India’s "official" entry into the global nuclear club can help rid the world of nuclear weapons.

(Inter Press Service)

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.