Snags Surface in India-US Nuclear Deal

NEW DELHI – The chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) has sent shock waves through the Indian establishment by accusing the United States of “changing the goal post” while finalizing a far-reaching, one-of-its-kind nuclear cooperation deal with India, initialed last July.

This appears certain to create major complications for the passage of the agreement aimed at restoring India-U.S. civilian nuclear commerce and legitimization of India’s nuclear weapons – in effect amending the global nonproliferation regime with an India-specific exception.

Differences between the U.S. and India mainly pertain to identifying and separating civilian nuclear facilities from military ones so that the civilian installations can be subjected to safeguards or inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Anil Kakodkar, head of the AEC, which runs both the civilian and military nuclear programs of India, told the Indian Express newspaper in an exclusive interview published Monday that he interprets the July 18 agreement to mean that the determination of which facilities are civilian and which are military “has to be made by the Indians. India’s strategic interests will have to be decided by India and not by others.”

The U.S., however, wants a say in deciding the civilian-military separation. Negotiators, led by Assistant Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, have told India that for the separation to be “credible,” the civilian list must include all facilities, including experimental and research installations, which are not directly related to nuclear weapons.

The critical difference centers on a special category called fast-breeder reactors, which theoretically yield more nuclear fuel than they consume. Fast-breeders are an open-ended source of plutonium for both civilian and military purposes.

Kakodkar insists that India’s fast-breeder program must be excluded from the civilian list. India currently has a tiny fast-breeder under operation and a mid-sized one (500 megawatts) under construction. India has often said it plans to build more for civilian use. But Kakodkar now says fast-breeders are needed for the weapons program, too.

“The fast-breeder issue is potentially a deal-breaker; unless differences are resolved on it, the entire agreement could collapse,” says Achin Vanaik, professor of international relations and global politics at Delhi University, and independent nuclear expert. “Kakodkar’s public statement has greatly complicated matters and narrowed the Indian government’s negotiating options,” adds Vanaik.

Kakodkar made his statement without prior authorization from the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office, which has been dealing directly with the India-U.S. nuclear issue. His interview confirms what has long been known: the AEC was extremely uncomfortable with the nuclear deal, and was dragged, kicking and screaming, into endorsing it. It is now confronting Manmohan Singh.

This is the first time that an AEC official has said that fast-breeders are necessary for India’s nuclear weapons program Earlier, they cited their function only as electricity producers.

Underlying this shift is that AEC’s view that the U.S. has reinterpreted the nuclear deal after promising that it would be strictly adhered to reciprocally. For instance, the civilian-military separation was meant to be “voluntary” and “phased.” But Washington has disputed India’s “voluntary” civilian-military identification. And it is not being done “in a phased manner.” Kakodkar’s statement reflects his pique at this.

Singh cannot, at this stage, sack Kakodkar for acting unauthorizedly without losing face and attracting the political charge of acting under U.S. pressure. Nor can he go along with Kakodkar’s line on fast-breeders – unless Washington gives up insistence on putting breeders in the civilian list.

The U.S. administration will not find it easy to exempt fast-breeders and convince skeptical senators and nuclear nonproliferation experts of the deal’s worth in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Indian governments may however eventually be able to find an awkward compromise on the issue, such as granting the fast-breeder program limited exemption from inspections for 10-15 years, by which India can stockpile enough military plutonium.

“Even that won’t be easy,” says Vanaik. “As things stand, it seems highly unlikely that the agreement will go through before President George W. Bush’s coming visit to India in three weeks’ time.”

If the deal is not sealed soon, the momentum would be lost. The deal faces stiff political opposition both from the Indian Left and the Right. The Left opposes any India-U.S. strategic alliance. It also opposes the Indian nuclear weapons program. The Singh government is dependent on the Left for its parliamentary survival.

The Right staunchly supports India’s nuclear weapons but claims the deal is a U.S. attempt to limit India’s nuclear arsenal and compromise her sovereignty.

The deal is controversial in the U.S. as well. Many policymakers and shapers, especially the Democrats, have criticized it. Yet fast-breeders are not the only issue on which there are sharp India-U.S. differences.

Kakodkar also demands exception for all facilities at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Mumbai, which include a wide range of civilian research laboratories beside plants producing military plutonium and its fabrication into warheads.

The site also houses CIRUS, a reactor built in 1960 with Canadian and U.S. design and material assistance, under India’s pledge that it would be used only for “peaceful purposes.”

In addition, Kakodkar says India must include in the military list a few power reactors, which might be needed to fuel fast-breeders. This too might not be easy to sell. Power-generating reactors are by definition civilian. The U.S. would have to make a special exception for India.

Whether the U.S. does so or not would be a political decision about rewarding India for loyalty. “India has been desperately wooing Washington,” says Anil Choudhary of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). “Last Saturday, India voted for a Western-sponsored resolution at the IAEA reporting Iran to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions. This was against the public interest as well as broad political consensus.”

India’s recent anti-Iran votes were criticized as being part of attempts to please the U.S. and save the nuclear deal, on which Manmohan Singh places a high value. But the ballots are no guarantee that the deal will be firmed up and implemented.

For the “pragmatists” in India’s pro-bomb lobby, the deal is an opportunity to get India recognized as a nuclear weapons-state and for nuclear ultra-nationalists, it is a disaster.

“The growing peace movement views the issue differently,” says Choudhary. “We support the separation of civilian and military facilities and full transparency and public oversight of all civilian installations, to begin with. But we don’t believe nuclear weapons have any positive aspect or impact. They are irrelevant to security. We are opposed to their existence and legitimization everywhere.”

If the nuclear deal falls through because of the conflict between nuclear ultra-nationalists and pragmatists, the peace movement would become an unintended beneficiary of its collapse.

(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.