Saturday, April 21, 2007

Indo-US Nuclear Deal Has To Trudge A Difficult Terrain

Writes Vinod Varshney

Indo-US Nuclear Deal has been vigorously made contentious, nationally and internationally. Many arguments and counter arguments. Have taste of it here.

Indo-US Nuclear Deal has generated an elaborate debate in media, parliament and diplomatic circles. A section of international media has at times dubbed it a US ploy to prop up India against China. According to them, this is being done on the same pattern, the US had done with China against USSR in 1971 when Richard Nixon became the first US President to visit China. His meeting with Mao Tse Dong was seen with utter surprise. It gave a new dimension to the global cold war.

However China took full advantage of its new acquired friendly relationship with the US. It got investment and fairly advanced technology both, not only from the US, but from the entire western world.

While our economy remained hobbled, China kept on opening up its economy ever after, bypassing what communist dogmas dictated. The result is for all to see. The China which had less per capita income than India in 1979, now has raised up to two and a half times of India’s per capita income.

Co-operation between China and the West gave tremendous impetus to China’s science and technology. It helped modernizing its economy. It is quite natural for many to believe that since China’s economic might is so enormous and its defense expenditure is growing so speedily, the US should have genuine reasons to worry and should want make India become stronger to balance the might of its neighbour.


But then there is another line of thinking based on India’s self interest which says that if the US wants to change its law to allow India seek nuclear fuel, equipment and technology from the US and other countries of the world, why should we have any objection to it. However the issue is not that simple and to keep record straight, we should peep a little in the history.

Arguments of the opposition political parties in the country on this issue has created an impression that by signing this deal India has chosen to become a “client state” of the US. To say so is natural for communists compelled by their professed ideology, but when politicians like the ex-external affairs minister Mr. Yashwant Sinha also use this term during debate in the parliament, then the issue needs to be examined closely in the light of strategic interest of the country rather than from the point of view of a short term political agenda.

One can recall that India was benefiting reasonably from the international cooperation in the field of nuclear technology till 1974. It had been able to start its first nuclear reactor (180 MW) in Tarapur by 1969 with the US assistance. India had not uranium enrichment capability and therefore had to depend on the imported fuel for this reactor.

Five years later when India exploded its first peaceful nuclear device in Pokharan in 1974, the US applied provisions of its Atomic Energy Act, 1954 and put technology sanctions against India. After the second Pokharan Test in 1998 entire nuclear suppliers group of 44 countries decided to stop even fuel supply to India whereas in the past India has been able to access it from China, France and Russia, as we had not been able to produce enough fissile grade uranium from our national resources.

We would be able to get this for any new reactor only when the NSG changes its rules. India wants to increase its nuclear power generation by six times which will remain on paper if NSG does not change its rules.

During the last 33 years in spite of the sanctions Indian Nuclear Scientists were able to carry out their nuclear programme successfully, so much so, India is constructing its first Fast Breeder Reactor of 500 MW and will also be able to start constructing its first thorium based 300 MW Advanced Heavy Water Reactor next year, safety appraisal of the design is currently being examined by Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.

While Indian programme is spectacular given various constraints Indian scientists had to face, yet it would be blinkered view if we say we will be able to achieve national targets of nuclear power from our own resources.

So far we have been far behind the schedule the main obstacle has been the less availability and poor quality of Indian uranium ore which has only 0.06 percent uranium compared to 18 percent found in Canadian ore.

In spite of so many years efforts the total nuclear electricity generation installed capacity is of the order of 3310 MW. Worrying thing is due to fuel constraints the generation factor of our reactors which was 90% in 2002-03 has come down to 74% in 2005-06. If we remain limited to our own resources then by 2020 we shall not be able to achieve the goal of establishing 21,180 MW capacity of nuclear power which will be only 7 percent of the total established capacity.

If we are able to strike the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement, and after this the 44 nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) amends its rules then certainly this target can not only be achieved but doubled.

Our first thorium-based reactor of 300 MW is projected to be ready only by 2020. In order to grow at the minimum 9 percent per annum, we have to arrange electricity from all the possible sources. These are the reasons we need nuclear energy rules changed in favour of India.

Russia and France had for long been advocating this change for long but now the US has also chosen to do that, we should welcome it. The spin-offs are one this deal is through, US restrictions on the dual use technologies will also go.

Many people do not know but due such restrictions India has not been able to purchase such technologies for enhancing national Science and Technology capability. How much we have suffered can be understood by a single fact that China today has 19 Super Computers which are included in the top 500 league of super computers of the world. In spite all the loud publicity of Indian super computers we don’t have even one in the top 500 super computers. The NPT signatories countries are not subjected to any such denial of technology.


India did not sign NPT because it found it discriminatory, yet India adhered to all non-proliferation obligations meant for nuclear power states, which record is not matched by all NPT signatories. For example China is accused to have secretly passed on the nuclear and missile technology to the North Korea and Pakistan, yet it got all the advantage of the US technology.

One will have to agree that while India benefits a lot if international nuclear rules are amended, yet it has not to come easily and without concerns, which need to be understood. The US congress has passed the Hyde Act which has made India- specific amendments in the Atomic Energy Act of the US.

This act has made the Indo-US Nuclear Deal more difficult to go through than it appeared 20 months ago. Through the Hyde Act, the US has lifted nuclear restrictions from India which came into force because India did not sign the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty).

Hyde Act has not recognized India as a nuclear power state and thus remains outside the exclusive club of US, Russia, France, Britain and China. But it lifts India a little higher from the category of non-nuclear power countries.

For these two different categories the norms of monitoring nuclear plants are different. While non-nuclear power states have obligations to put all their nuclear reactors under the IAEA safeguards. That means that they can be inspected any time by IAEA inspectors for any violations of the NPT provisions and IAEA safe-guard guidelines and in case any violation is detected, the Security Council of the United Nations can take action against such states. Where as Nuclear Power States have the exclusive right to only voluntarily put their civilian reactors under safe-guards.

India through the Hyde Act is being put in the category of Medium Nuclear Power State which can keep its strategic nuclear reactors totally outside the purview of the IAEA monitoring, but will have to keep all the Civilian Nuclear Reactors under safe-guards.

The US says this facility is only exclusively for India and no other country would be granted this facility. Why India? Because India’s conduct in the non-proliferation matter has been exemplary. If the Agreement on Nuclear Cooperation with the US materializes and subsequently the 44 country NSG also amends its rules, then India will be able to attract many nuclear reactors from Russia, France and US.

Not only this, India will be able to participate in the international programme of fourth generation nuclear reactors which will be safer and more efficient. Currently US, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, south Africa, Switzerland, Britain and European Union collectively developing it.

India has very little uranium resources but largest reserve of thorium. India plans to use this thorium only in the third phase of its nuclear programme, which means the Fast Breeder Reactors of the Second phase would have generated enough plutonium, then only India will be able to use its thorium.

But plutonium is considered a weapon grade fissile material and if in future the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty will be signed, India will have problems because of its Fast Breeder Reactors. But Russia, US and Japan jointly are working on Rowdovsky Thorium Project, which aims to make possible to use thorium directly without going through the route of plutonium which alarms the international community.

But are there not really any concern on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal ? In fact there are many and hard negotiations will be required to address them. It has been suggested that the Deal would jeopardize the national security as it aims to involve India in the FMCG, which would limit India’s nuclear arsenal and imposes a ban on nuclear tests.

There is specific provision in the US law that if India detonates then the arrangement under the Deal will end. It is indeed a big risk. India is surrounded by two nuclear power countries with whom India had fought wars. If due to their conduct any security perception gets changed and India needs up-gradation of its nuclear armaments, and fresh tests are required to carry out, then India may find itself in difficulty.

It is mentionable that the China has already reached on the verge of making third generation nuclear weapons. If India has to reach at this stage, fresh tests would be required. The US law makes India’s voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests a legally binding affair. That is why the critics call Indo-US Nuclear deal a bi-partisan CTBT, which even the US Senate has refused to sign.

According to the Hyde Act if India detonates, the US will not only have right to recall all its fuel, equipment and technology but will also see that other countries do not give any of these things to India. Hyde Act also requires from India to declare as early as possible about its requirement of fissile material for its strategic purposes.

India has already given commitment to the US for signing the FMCT when-ever it is ready for signing. All nuclear power states except China are ready for it. Once this treaty comes into existence, India will not be able to enrich uranium nor make plutonium even for its strategic programme. There are concerns on reprocessing of spent fuel generated from the civilian reactors.

The Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh has assured the nation through his statement in the Parliament more than once that India will not accept any restriction on future nuclear tests, neither will accept any restriction on its plutonium generating Fast Breeder Programme, but actualizing it in the form Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Agreement would require tough negotiation.

Democrats have always maintained a hard line stance on this issue. Currently George Bush’s Republican Party does not have majority in both the houses of the Congress, and according to the Hyde Act, the agreement will have to be approved in the Congress. It seems it would be a very difficult task due to American political situation to get the deal through until after the 2008 US elections.