Published on Wednesday, July 20, 2005 by the Inter Press Service
India, US Open Can of Nuclear Worms
by Praful Bidwai
NEW DELHI - More than 30 years after the United States walked out of a nuclear cooperation agreement with India, because it conducted an atomic test, the two countries have agreed to resume collaboration in civilian nuclear energy.
A joint-statement issued by US President George W. Bush and visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Washington on Tuesday said the US 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 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which only recognizes five NWSs. All five crossed the atomic threshold before 1967 while India became a self-declared NWS only in 1998.
The US-India agreement is likely to run into problems on the supply side, in the US 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 US 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'' that could only be read as nuclear weapon states.
Besides ''working to prevent the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction'', India would take a series of steps towards ''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 US for the ''conclusion of a multilateral Fissile Material Cut-Off 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'' although it is not a member of either grouping.
There are deep divisions within the US establishment over restructuring the global nuclear order to accommodate India. For instance, security experts like Ashley J. Tellis advocate that the US should integrate India into the global non-proliferation 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 US and others should not adjust the nuclear non-proliferation 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 non-proliferation 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 US,'' argues A Gopalakrishnan, a nuclear engineer and former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (IAERB).
''The US 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 US-built enriched uranium-boiling water reactors more than a dozen reactors which burn natural uranium with heavy water, and fast-breeder reactors. The US 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 US-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 policy-makers, especially in the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), which has had an unpleasant experience with procuring enriched uranium fuel for two US- built reactors at Tarapur, near the western port city of Mumbai.
India does need 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 US 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 DAE 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 DAE 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 DAE 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 DAE 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 US, China, the former USSR, Russia, France, Norway and Britain.
But the idea of nuclear self-reliance remains an article of faith with many DAE 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-US 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 US is sure to raise fears about loss of - sovereignty” and 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 which remain menacing for tens of thousands of years.
© 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service