The Indo-US nuclear deal, with its attendant ‘123 Agreement’, the India-specific International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and Nuclear Suppliers Group waivers, need to be seen as building blocks of an extended process through which India is being brought into the mainstream of global politics.
Critics of the agreement have parsed every full-stop, comma and preposition to delineate its faults. They have sought to play up fears and put forward worst-case scenarios to undermine the agreement. In the coming years, as India intensifies its nuclear power programme in a big way, there will be many occasions when there will be differences of opinion on various clauses and agreements.
But let’s be clear that if the US has its interpretation of the 123 Agreement or the NSG waiver, so will India. More important, US generosity and Indian diplomatic tenacity has ensured that we have got as much of a level playing field as could have been provided for an outlaw country in the nuclear arena. From now onwards, its future will be shaped not by the fears of its critics but the practical use we make of the opportunities it provides.
What does the agreement do? First, and most immediately, it will allow India to import natural uranium fuel to run our existing and planned nuclear power plants at full capacity. Second, it will allow us to resume collaboration with Canada to upgrade the CANDU design on which most Indian reactors are based. The Indian reactors are typically 220, or now 540 MW, while Canada has developed 740 MW reactors and has a 1,000 MW unit on the drawing board. Third, India can import modern units from France, Russia or the US, along with financing to set them up.
Fourth, Indian engineers and researchers will be permitted to work or collaborate with their counterparts in advanced nuclear nations without any special restrictions. Fifth, it provides India’s own industry such as Larsen & Toubro or the NPCIL the opportunity to become suppliers of key reactor items or even reactors. Sixth, it will enable India to acquire hitherto forbidden dual use technology which is critical for our ambitious space and high-tech industry programmes.
In the US, critics like Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress and Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association have claimed that US-supplied uranium fuel would free up India’s limited uranium reserves for use in its nuclear weapons programme. The views of these professional non-proliferation lobbyists were echoed on Wednesday in the US Senate by Senators Byron Dorgan and Jeff Bingaman. This claim flies against the face of facts. If India was interested in fabricating nuclear weapons it could have done so in the 1960s, to start with. Even after its single test explosion in 1974, it did nothing.
There were two reasons why it was compelled to change course. First, New Delhi got information of the extent to which China was assisting Pakistan in making nuclear weapons. This was a shocking development, because no country in the world had knowingly transferred nuclear weapons technology to another — not the US to UK or France, nor Russia to China. As a recent issue of Physics Today has disclosed, not only did China transfer a weapons design in 1982, but it also tested a weapon that had been made in Pakistan in its own test site in 1990.
Second, following the end of the Cold War and the scare over Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions, the US began to move in a concerted way to lock up India’s options. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — which acknowledges nuclear weapons possession only by five big powers — was extended “in perpetuity”. India was not affected as we are not signatories. But the second step was more compelling — the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was approved. This would ensure that India and other threshold powers would never be able to test their weapons.
Though we categorically rejected the treaty, it decreed that unless forty threshold countries, which included India, Pakistan, Israel, also signed and ratified it, it could not come into force. The pressure for ratification became intense as all significant countries signed up, though some key countries like the US and China did not ratify it.
These pressures pushed India to test. The first attempt by the P.V. Narasimha Rao government in December 1995 was foiled when the preparations were discovered, and the second came apart when Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 13-day government collapsed in 1996. The tests were eventually carried out in May of 1998, a quarter century after the Pokhran I test.
This was hardly the behaviour of a power bent on making nuclear weapons. In any case even today if India did want to make lots of nuclear weapons, it could simply take its 14-odd power reactors out of the electricity grid and use them in a “low burn-up” mode to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.
There is a mirror-version of this critique in India. There are those who say that the agreement has taken away our right to test and that it will come in the way of constructing our nuclear arsenal. The test issue would be clear to anyone who has bothered to read the various documents associated with the deal — there is nothing in there which prevents India from testing. As for the weapons, the most knowledgeable authority — K. Santhanam of the DRDO who steered the programme to the tests at Pokhran II has made it clear in an article last year that India already has all the nuclear material it needs to construct a “credible minimum deterrent.” R. Chidambaram, the chief of the DAE at the time, too, stated last August that the tests met all the scientific community’s requirements for fabricating the arsenal that was needed.
It doesn’t take much common sense to see that while we do have the sovereign right to test, there will be diplomatic consequences of the event. While countries like France and Russia may not react at all, the US will, though its position is not as absolute as it appears. On the face of it, the US is required to terminate cooperation and seek the return of its nuclear and non-nuclear material, technology or components.
Practically, however, Article 15(6) of the 123 Agreement would require the US party to compensate at “fair market value” of the equipment and pay for the costs of the removal. As Department of Atomic Energy Chairman, Anil Kakodkar has pointed out, “It is practically not possible [to remove reactor vaults, steam generators, coolant channels etc that make up a nuclear power station]. It is nuanced too by Article 14 which commits the US to consider the context of the termination. In other words, the US reaction would be graded if India resumed testing because of China or Pakistan
There are bound to be geopolitical consequences of the agreement. The US has its reasons for what it has done, and India has its own for what it is doing. If there is congruence, well and good, if there isn’t well, the world will not end. But to assume that India is so beholden to the US that it will now be subservient to its interests is to be blind to contemporary reality in which India is the strongest economically and militarily that it has been in 60 years. As for the US, well it would be unfair to extrapolate from its present infirmities.
This article appeared in Mail Today October 3, 2008