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Implementing the Indo-US. Nuclear Deal: A Pyrrhic Struggle

P.R. Chari is Research Professor at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.
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  • January 05, 2006

    Two rounds of negotiations have been held between Indian and US officials to negotiate implementing the Indo-US nuclear agreement, embedded in the Joint Statement issued by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W Bush on July 18, 2005. Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran's talks with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas D Burns in Washington last week was the second round. It ended with ritual incantations that they achieved "considerable advance" and "very positive forward movement" in an "encouraging environment." But, they needed to meet again to iron out differences before President Bush visits India in early 2006.

    A parsing of the nuclear deal informs that the Bush administration has pledged to "seek agreement from Congress to adjust U.S. laws and policies, and…. [to] work with friends and allies to adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy and trade with India, including but not limited to expeditious consideration of fuel supplies for safeguarded nuclear reactors at Tarapur." In consequence, the Bush administration needs to promote India's case before Congress for being excluded from the constraints of US laws, and persuade the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to dilute its guidelines for permitting nuclear exports to India by its members. These effusive statements cannot disguise the reality that India must be satisfied that the changes contemplated in US laws and guidelines of the NSG will enable it to obtain civilian nuclear energy cooperation in return for placing segments of its nuclear programme under IAEA safeguards.

    Further, the US legislation comprises the US Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act (1978) and consequent amendments to the US Atomic Energy Act (1954), which expressly prohibit the United States from pursuing civilian nuclear cooperation with countries that are not NPT signatories or have not placed all their nuclear facilities under fullscope safeguards. This legislation was framed after India exploded its 'peaceful' nuclear device in 1974, which dramatises the internal problems facing the Bush administration in making India an exception to its prohibitions. A radical shift has obviously occurred in American perceptions, since the pre-conditions that India must sign the NPT or accept fullscope safeguards upon its entire nuclear programme before supply of nuclear materials, equipment or technology could be effected is not being insisted upon.

    For its part, India has agreed to "identifying and separating [its] civilian and military nuclear facilities and programs in a phased manner and filing a declaration regarding its civilian facilities with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); taking a decision to place voluntarily its civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards; [and] signing and adhering to an Additional Protocol with respect to nuclear facilities." India has also agreed to continue its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, working towards the conclusion of a Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty, refraining from transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies, passing comprehensive export control legislation and adhering by NSG and Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) guidelines.

    These dual sets of obligations are to be "reciprocal," but this is an intrinsic impossibility. An element of tentativeness is built into the American obligations since the Bush administration has to persuade the US Congress and the 44 countries comprising the Nuclear Suppliers Group to make India an exception to their norms, laws, rules and regulations. India can undertake its side of the bargain by executive decision. Hence, India is at a negotiating disadvantage, since the steps taken by it must satisfy not only the executive and legislative branches of the US administration but also the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. These negotiating disadvantages provide the backdrop for "identifying and separating [its] civilian and military nuclear facilities and programs in a phased manner and filing a declaration regarding its civilian facilities with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)."

    Indian official interlocutors have denied that the Indo-US nuclear deal would compromise India's strategic requirements, and that the identification and separation of civilian and military nuclear facilities would be autonomously decided, and not be adjudicated upon by the United States. Unfortunately, this is not true. The US Ambassador to India, David Mulford, made it clear that India must submit a 'credible' plan for separating its civilian and military facilities before the US administration places this plan before Congress for considering the proposed scheme and taking steps to amend the concerned legislation. The difficulty before India in effecting this identification and separation exercise is that the civilian and military facilities within its nuclear programme have been shaded over. Unlike other nuclear weapon states, India has not dedicated nuclear facilities for military purposes, and the same facilities were used for both civil and military purposes.

    For instance, the 40 MW CIRUS reactor imported from Canada had manufactured the weapons grade plutonium used in the 1974 Pokharan I (PNE) device. It has been used for military purposes since, but also produces radioactive isotopes for medical, agricultural and other civil applications. Whether it should be classified as a civilian or military facility is arguable, but this controversy can escalate if the issue is raised that CIRUS was supplied by Canada for peaceful purposes. The issue whether it can be used for plainly military purposes has not been satisfactorily resolved to date. A problem therefore arises with identifying CIRUS for either civilian or military purposes. Will India be able to take an autonomous decision in this regard? Or will it become an issue for negotiation with the United States?

    A similar problem arises with India's Fast Breeder Reactor programme on which its Bhabha-envisioned three-phase atomic energy programme hinges. The first phase was premised on building natural-uranium fuelled reactors to produce power. The plutonium by-product was to be used in the second-stage reactors along with thorium - abundantly available in India - for producing uranium-233 to be used in third-stage breeder reactors fuelled with U-233 and thorium. Burning this fuel would produce more U-233 than consumed by fission, thereby breeding the U-233 fuel. For the non-proliferation lobby, Bhabha's vision amounts to a strategy for unbridled proliferation. India would need to accept this logic as its Fast Breeders are intended to augment its atomic power programme. Further, it has agreed to "working with the United States for the conclusion of a multilateral Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty." More broadly, how will India proceed further with its nuclear weapons programme without further testing its nuclear devices with a moratorium on nuclear testing in place?

    The harsh truth is that the parties involved in any negotiations bring their vulnerabilities to the negotiating table. The United States is undoubtedly driven by larger geo-strategic considerations - read, the need to contain China and construct a new security architecture for Asia - to broaden its relations with India. But its foreign policy considerations are tempered by its non-proliferation concerns. Can the steadily weakening Bush administration ignore the powerful constituencies within the American policy elite that are impelled by non-proliferation concerns, and forge the bipartisan consensus needed by the US Congress to amend its non-proliferation-related laws? Should the Bush Administration falter in this enterprise, how will it persuade the other members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which includes China, to except India from their guidelines to allow nuclear exports by NSG members to India? China would, most likely, demand the same concessions for Pakistan. Russia might demand similar concessions to proceed with its lucrative nuclear exports to Iran.

    What are India's vulnerabilities? These relate, unequivocally, to its diminishing supplies of low enriched uranium for its Tarapur reactors (only a few months' supply are left), and dwindling supplies of natural uranium for India's extensive PHWRs programme (this will last for around one year if these reactors work to full capacity.) How did India get into this quagmire? Quite evidently, insufficient attention was paid to these magnifying problems while hoping that low enriched uranium and natural uranium supplies would somehow become available with the efflux of time. Was the political leadership cognizant of these vulnerabilities in India's high profile nuclear programme? India was being targeted by the international nuclear regime, and the proclaimed policy was to rely on indigenous technology and resources. Why then did this situation develop? A better explanation is needed from the concerned authorities.

    That said, how should India work out its nuclear deal with the United States? Time is against the Indian side due to dwindling supplies of low-enriched and natural uranium. A clear vision of India's nuclear programme is needed; ideally, it should serve both its security and energy interests. But a choice is being forced on India. Must it develop deterrent capabilities to emulate the other nuclear weapon powers? Or, pragmatically restrict its deterrent to Pakistan? Should it abandon its grandiose futuristic Bhabha plan to progress its light water and PHWR programme and meet its current power needs by imports of enriched and natural uranium? Practical and realistic answers to these questions would ease the problem of identification and separation of civilian and military facilities, and operationalizing the Indo-US. nuclear deal.