The US-India nuclear deal: myth and reality

The US-India nuclear deal: myth and reality
By Praful Bidwai: The News, July 27, 2007

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi

The United States and India have reported "substantial progress" on a bilateral agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation, and will "refer the issue to our governments for final review". This follows tough, wrenching, high-level negotiations spread over four days in Washington, culminating a total of 300 working hours of talks in several different countries.

The deal is called the "123 agreement" because it will amend Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act to allow civilian nuclear commerce with India although India is a nuclear weapons-state, which has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, so wary are the two governments that they have so far given no details of the 30-page agreement's contents, in particular, about its acceptance of India's "right" to reprocess fuel burned in imported reactors, and continuity of supplies from the US in case India conducts a nuclear test. But according to reliable reports, the US has substantially conceded India's demands on both counts.

The agreement will soon be placed before India's Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs and later before the US Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendments. Under Indian law, it need not be ratified by Parliament. The deal only became possible with interventions by US Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, and talks between the national security advisers of the two countries, as well as high-powered delegations of diplomats and technical experts. Looming large over the talks was the presence of India's Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar. Although Kakodkar did not participate in the negotiations, he was continually consulted to ensure that his concerns about the deal are met. Kakodkar was known to be less than happy with the deal, and in the recent past orchestrated opposition to it through his former colleagues.

The agreement grants India "prior consent" to reprocess fuel for plutonium to be used in its fast breeder reactors. India has all along insisted on such a full-fledged "right", which is strongly contested by non-proliferation advocates in the US. But to earn it, India will have to build a dedicated reprocessing facility for imported fuel and place it under safeguards (inspections) of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

On the second contentious issue, guarantees of US nuclear supplies if India conducts a nuclear explosion, it has been apparently agreed that the US can demand a return of equipment and material exported to India. But the right's exercise is hedged in with clauses that call for consultations, and by technical conditions calculated to prevent a sudden and complete suspension of nuclear cooperation. Both the US Atomic Energy Act, and a legislation passed last December by the US Congress called the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act, mandate a cessation of nuclear cooperation if India conducts a test. Under the new agreement, such cessation will be less than effective.

The Indian side obviously did some hard bargaining and took full advantage of Washington's political keenness to make a special exception for India in the global non-proliferation regime. It also seems likely that India offered the lure of large military contracts and other business deals. Supporters of the deal, who root for a close US-India "strategic partnership", are euphoric and say the 123 agreement will end India's nuclear isolation. The deal's Right-wing opponents are upset. They include some former and serving nuclear scientists, who are allergic to any external inspections. The Bharatiya Janata Party calls the deal a "sellout".

What's the truth? Three issues are crucial. Will the 123 agreement cap India's nuclear weapons capability through intrusive inspections? Can the US suddenly suspend civilian nuclear commerce with India, as happened after India's first nuclear test in 1974? And will the agreement promote India's energy security by allowing it to accelerate its "three-stage" nuclear energy development plan, including fast breeders, and eventually, thorium-based reactors?

First and foremost, India will only subject 14 of its 22 operating/planned power reactors to IAEA inspections. It can continue to produce weapons-grade material in the remaining eight reactors, as well as fast breeders and dedicated weapons facilities. Together, these can yield enough fuel for several hundred weapons. In fact, India can use its indigenous uranium, which is in short supply, exclusively to make weapons, while importing uranium for its power reactors. Far from capping India's nuclear weapons production, the deal will allow its substantial expansion.

Second, the 123 agreement will ensure continuity of US nuclear supplies--unless India conducts a nuclear explosion. Even in that eventuality, the US's "right of return" of reactors and materials will not be activated automatically and suddenly. There will be a "cushion". Besides, India will be free to import materials from other sources if the US withdraws. At any rate, a repeat of the 1970s Tarapur situation seems unlikely.

Finally, the nuclear deal will do little to promote India's energy security. To start with, nuclear power is a dubious route to security because it is fraught with grave problems of operational safety, proneness to accidents, routine radioactivity releases and exposure, and above all, high-level wastes that remain radioactive for centuries.

India's nuclear power plans have always been marked by utopian and constantly missed targets. For instance, India was projected to generate 43,500 megawatts of nuclear electricity by 2000. Today, India produces less than 1/10th of that amount in nuclear reactors. However, even if India's romantic plans fructify, the contribution of atomic energy to total electricity generation will rise by 2030 to 6 percent, from the current level of 3 percent. That can hardly be a source of energy security!

As for the fabled "three-stage programme", eventually to be based on thorium reactors, it is a futuristic project inspired largely by wishful thinking. Nobody has yet proved the feasibility of thorium reactors on an industrial scale. A crucial precondition for exploiting thorium thus is a huge successful fast-breeder programme. But fast breeders have failed everywhere in the world, including France, which invested heavily in them.

The Right's criticism of the deal is, then, profoundly mistaken. But that doesn't mean that the deal is desirable and worthy. It's open to numerous criticisms. Politically and strategically, it is part of, and inseparable from, from the growing, asymmetrical India-US relationship which seeks to draw New Delhi into the American camp, not least as a counterfoil to China. This will narrow India's room for independent manoeuvre and action in the world.

The deal will legitimise and sanctify nuclear weapons, including the US's weapons. By signing it, India will bid goodbye to the agenda of global nuclear disarmament, to which the Manmohan Singh government promised to return in 2004. The deal will set a negative example for the rest of the world and encourage nuclear proliferation. This cannot be in the interests of global security.

That's why the peace movement opposes the deal--on grounds wholly different from those of the Right. Unless the 123 agreement is rejected by the Indian Cabinet, or fails to win Congressional ratification, which seems most unlikely, the site of the struggle for peace and disarmament must shift to other forums which too must approve the deal: the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers' Group, and the IAEA.



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