India: Impasse Over Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Rights

NEW DELHI – High official-level talks between the United States and India to clinch the nuclear cooperation deal initialed in July 2005 have failed to narrow mutual differences and produce an agreement.
The negotiations, held last week between the US team led by undersecretary of state R. Nicholas Burns, and the Indian side led by Foreign Secretary (chief diplomat) Shivshankar Menon, were scheduled to last two days. They were extended by one more day to Saturday, but did not lead to a “123 agreement” – so called because it is meant to amend Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act to permit nuclear commerce with India by making a one-time exception for it within the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

The nuclear deal may come up at the June 6-8 G8 summit at Heiligendamm in Germany where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will meet President George W. Bush. But it is not clear if Bush will discuss it in any depth, especially if he leaves Heiligendamm early.

India put a positive spin on the talks by saying they were “intensive, productive and constructive” and expressed “optimism” that a final “123 agreement” would soon be struck.

But Indian officials know that the window of opportunity to clinch a deal will probably slam shut by September, when the US Congress reconvenes to focus on domestic issues, Bush becomes a lame duck, and the presidential election campaign gains momentum. The main differences between the two governments pertain to what would happen to US supplies of nuclear fuel and equipment if India conducts another nuclear explosion, and to India’s “right” to reprocess imported fuel after it has been burned in Indian reactors.

“These differences appear to be sharpened or become more focused in recent weeks,” says Achin Vanaik, a political science professor at Delhi University, and an activist of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, a network of Indian peace groups founded in 2000. “They certainly overshadow other differences on issues such as sequencing of steps India must take before the deal goes into effect.”

Vanaik said that unless both side showed a remarkable degree of flexibility, the deal won’t go through in the near future. ‘’At the moment, there are few signs of real flexibility.”

India insists on guarantees that the supplies be maintained under all circumstances. But under US law, no nuclear material can be sold/transferred to a country which has conducted a nuclear test and not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This position was reiterated last December by Congress which passed the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006 (Hyde Act). The Americans also say they have a “right” to demand that India return all equipment and material supplied to it in case it conducts a nuclear blast.

Equally thorny is the issue of reprocessing of imported fuel to extract plutonium from it. Plutonium can be used both to make nuclear bombs and to fuel a special kind of reactor known as the fast-breeder, which produces more nuclear fuel than it consumes.

India says it must have the “right” to reprocess spent fuel to run its ambitious fast-breeder program, which will eventually lead to a “third-generation” or third-stage reactor based on another material called thorium.

India is believed to have less than one percent of the world reserves of natural uranium, but more than 30 percent of the global reserves of thorium.

In recent weeks and months, several serving and former officials of the Department of Atomic Energy have written or spoken on India’s planned “three-stage” program as unchangeable, immutable and indispensable to India’s energy needs.

The day the nuclear talks began in New Delhi last week, a national newspaper carried two long opinion pieces arguing this position by former DAE chiefs, one of them a member of the policy-making Atomic Energy Commission.

“It is doubtful if India needs nuclear power at all”, argues M.V. Ramana, a physicist and independent energy expert attached to the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore. “Nuclear electricity is exorbitantly expensive, unacceptably hazardous, and fraught with long-lived radioactive wastes. But leaving that aside, nobody has proved the viability of the thorium reactor on an industrial scale. Even the ‘second-stage’ fast-breeder has proved a failure, not just in India, but also in France, which invested heavily in that technology.”

Yet, India’s hardline nuclear scientist-engineers’ lobby has prevailed upon the political leadership on reprocessing, as also on sticking to the letter of the July 2005 agreement which pledges “full nuclear cooperation” between India and the US

It is not clear if the lobby is generally resistant to any restrictions on the “right” to reprocess, or especially allergic to their denial in the present case because it fears that that will attract safeguards (inspections) not only on reprocessing plants, but on downstream facilities that use material produced in the plants.

The fact is, the Indian government has indicated that it won’t budge on the issue: if the US could agree to allow Japan and a Western European consortium called Euratom to reprocess spent fuel, it should do the same for India.

This, some analysts say, may not be easy to sell to the US Congress because India is not an NPT signatory. Congress must approve the “123 agreement”. In practical terms, this may require a special certification from the US President that the reprocessed material won’t be diverted to military uses. This is a tricky issue.

During the talks, the US proposed that India leave the reprocessing issue out of the “123 agreement”.

But India rejected this, citing its past experience with two light-water reactors donated and built by the US at Tarapur in the 1960s. After India conducted a nuclear test in 1974, the US neither let India reprocess the spent fuel, nor took it back.

India also reiterated the US assurance that “nothing in the Hyde Act” prevents it from implementing its “obligations under July 18, 2005 and March 2, 2006 Joint Statements”, and asked the administration to stick to this assurance.

“A resolution of the differences will need a high-level political decision”, says Vanaik. “Such a decision can only be based on or derived from the broader purpose of the India-US nuclear deal, which is to consolidate a strategic partnership between the US and India, largely on Washington’s terms, as part of its global system of alliances.”

Whether and how soon Bush and Singh will reaffirm that rationale and push the deal through in the face of their domestic oppositions remains to be seen. But it won’t be easy to silence the critics.

Meanwhile, lobbyists of the Indian diaspora living in several countries which are members of the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers’ Group have stepped up their advocacy in favor of the deal through email campaigns, seminars and meetings with legislators.

(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.