Monday, September 03, 2007

More on the nuclear deal

The Prime Minister has confirmed what has been known internally by the government for a long time—that the country is short of natural uranium. The shortage is such that it will not only inhibit our nuclear power production, but actually has the potential of undermining our vaunted indigenous three stage programme. Speaking at the ceremony inaugurating the Tarapur 3 & 4 reactors on August 31, 2007, Dr. Manmohan Singh said:

“At the same time, our uranium resource base is limited. We have, therefore, consciously opted for a closed fuel cycle approach ever since the beginning of our nuclear power programme. We need to expeditiously develop fast reactor technologies and intensify efforts to locate additional uranium resources in the country. Government will extend its full support in this regard.

Even as we pursue our three-stage programme, it is necessary to look at augmenting our capabilities. We need to supplement our uranium supplies from elsewhere even as the DAE has taken a number of laudable steps to maximize output within the limited resources. We must take decisive steps to remove the uncertainties that result from shortfall in fuel supplies to avoid disruptions in our nuclear power production programme.”(emphases added)

This is the text of the statement read out by External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee after a meeting of leaders of the Congress and Left parties at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s residence on August 30, 2007:

In view of certain objections raised by the Left parties on the Indo-U.S. bilateral agreement on nuclear cooperation, it has been decided to constitute a committee to go into these issues.

1. The composition of the committee will be announced shortly.

2. The committee will look into certain aspects of the bilateral agreement; the implications of the Hyde Act on the 123 Agreement and self-reliance in the nuclear sector; the implications of the nuclear agreement on foreign policy and security cooperation.

3. The committee will examine these issues. The operationalisation of the deal will take into account the committee’s findings.

This is my take on the issue:

The text of the agreement reached by the Manmohan Singh government and the Left parties over the impasse on the Indo-US nuclear deal is clearly a face-saving device. You can see it as a glass half-empty, or, as I do, as one half full. It does appear to us to be an anodyne measure that will help the deal to overcome the hiccup created by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Prakash Karat’s hard-line rejection of the deal.

The committee that will be created through the agreement will look into “certain aspects” of the 123 Agreement, as well as “the implications of the Hyde Act on the 123 Agreement and self-reliance in the nuclear sector… and on foreign policy and security cooperation.” The committee will no doubt tread on ground already walked on by the government itself. Is it likely that the government would not have studied the implications of the Hyde act on the 123 agreement ? Indeed, the agreement has been shaped by the Hyde act and the debates in the US Congress that preceded the act. Because the process has been relatively open, India is aware of the potential pitfalls that the legislative process could have created. However, forewarned by the time the act came into being—having done the route through the Congressional committees, debates in the two houses of Congress and finally at the reconciliation stage— the Indian authorities were able to ensure that none of the so-called “killer” amendments were able to pass.
Whatever was left over was taken care of by the US president’s signing statement. Bush bluntly noted that “My approval of the Act does not constitute my adoption of the statements of policy [ as listed in the Hyde Act] as U.S. foreign policy.”
So all that stuff about India following the American agenda on Iran and elsewhere are simply not true. Perhaps more important is that under customary international law, an international agreement, such as the 123 Agreement, will always domestic legislation like the Hyde Act. You may ask: How did the US deny us fuel for Tarapur in the late 1970s ? Actually the US did not deny us the fuel outright; they refused to activate the consultative mechanisms. That is the reason why the current 123 Agreement specifies time-bound procedures. The ghost of Tarapur I haunts the agreement.

As for self-reliance in the nuclear sector, it would be easy to show the committee that the 123 Agreement will actually be a life-line of sorts for India’s domestic nuclear industry. As per the three-stage plan, our current stock of pressurized heavy water reactors must yield enough plutonium so as to fuel our fast breeder reactors which will produce more plutonium, as well as Uranium 233 from thorium. This Uranium 233 will then be used with thorium in a process that will regenerate U 233 which can then be used with more thorium to provide an endless supply of nuclear power.

There is such an acute shortage of natural uranium that India is not able to run its current reactors at full strength. In addition it does not have fuel to power the reactors it is building. So importing fuel is vital for the success of our indigenous programme. Access to imported technology also provides us an important hedge in case our fast breeder reactors do not perform to the levels they are required to.

The issue of the impact of the 123 Agreement on our foreign policy and security cooperation are somewhat more difficult to assess. If you want to believe that India, a country with a record for taking independent foreign policy issues, will be bought over to the American camp because of this one agreement, you probably also believe that the stars are God's daisy chain. India cooperates with a variety of countries on trade and technology issues, as well as security—Russia, France, UK, and even China. Why should the United States, the world's leading economic and military power be seen as some pariah ?

Fortunately, according to the text of the agreement between Mukherji and the Left parties, the operationalisation of the deal will merely “take into account” the committee’s findings and will clearly not be bound by them.

Another Chinese take on the subject:

“the agreement does boost India' s nuclear energy development. According to the agreement, both India and the United States will unfold nuclear energy cooperation in full swing and the United States will provide India with nuclear technology, installations and fuel, and help it establish a strategic reserve of nuclear energy. As a matter of fact, India is extremely short of energy. Electricity shortage has been a big problem that has plagued people' s normal life and sustainable economic development. The civilian nuclear power development will help India greatly ease the power shortage and provide guarantee to a steady economic development.”

Read the whole, if somewhat convoluted comment here People’s Daily Online August 30, 2007

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