21 January 2006

Indo-U.S. nuclear deal: Safeguards for breeder reactors a key obstacle

Exclusive: A close look at the state of negotiations between India and United States on the implementation of last July's Indo-U.S. nuclear deal suggests things are not going as smoothly as the two governments are suggesting. In particular, Washington is refusing to accept New Delhi's stand that its indigenous fast breeder programme will not be subjected to IAEA inspections.

21 January 2006
The Hindu

Safeguards for breeder reactors a key obstacle

U.S. unwilling to accept Indian stand

Siddharth Varadarajan

New Delhi : As India and the United States concluded their third round of technical talks on the planned separation and safeguarding of Indian civilian nuclear facilities this week, the status of the country's fast breeder programme is emerging as a key obstacle to the conclusion of an agreement acceptable to both sides, The Hindu has learnt.

According to sources familiar with the ideas exchanged by both delegations, the U.S. team, headed by Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, is unwilling to accept India's position that the fast breeder, as an R&D programme, will not be put on the list of civilian facilities that are offered up for safeguards and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"Nothing unique"

The American delegation is understood to have argued that there was nothing unique or distinctive about the fast breeder technology, which warranted an exception being made for it. They argued that if Japan could agree to subject its Joyo experimental breeder reactor and Monju prototype reactor to IAEA safeguards, there was no reason why India could not.

Both reactors have been under safeguards since their inception and today are subject to full-time advanced verification systems such as `neutron coincidence counters', radiation monitoring systems and fuel flow monitors, in addition to video surveillance. If India does not accept safeguards on its breeders, the U.S. argues, it will be very hard to get the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to sign off on a rule change enabling nuclear commerce with India.

Thursday's meeting here was apparently the first time the Indian side formally got to learn of America's insistence on safeguarding the 20-year old Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) and Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam, near Chennai. Even as recently as December last, following the conclusion of the second round of talks, well-placed Indian officials told The Hindu that the breeder issue had never been raised by the American side.

At Thursday's discussions, however, the Japanese analogy for safeguards cut no ice. The Indian side pointed out that there was no basis to compare India with Japan when the July 18, 2005 agreement spoke of India assuming "the same responsibilities and practices and (acquiring) the same benefits and advantages as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology, such as the United States." Japan was a non-nuclear weapon state under the NPT and the status of its safeguards agreement with the IAEA had no bearing on what India should do.

India also believes that the breeder technology plays a much less important part in Japan's overall nuclear energy mix than it does in Indian plans. Unlike the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which has the freedom to source components and technology from any part of the world, India's Department of Atomic Energy has had to rely on its own resources and technologies.

Allowing IAEA inspections will seriously compromise the quality and scope of ongoing research, nuclear scientists who have worked closely on and led the breeder programme told The Hindu .

"Moving fuel from one section to another would then require informing the IAEA in advance, waiting for their inspector to arrive and approve, and then executing the task concerned," said one former DAE scientist. Asked at what stage he would be willing to offer the breeder technology for inspections, another senior retired nuclear official said there was no reason to ever subject breeder reactors to safeguards. "Of course, if we decide to use some of the spent plutonium from imported light water reactors in a breeder, that particular reactor can come under safeguards under the principle of pursuit."

At the heart of the U.S. insistence on safeguarding the fast breeders is its reluctance to accept India as a nuclear weapons state, scientists familiar with the programme's potential weapons application say. Though India wants breeders for civilian purposes, a breeder reactor can also be used as a "laundry" to breed weapon-grade Pu-239 from reactor grade plutonium (Pu-240) generated by pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs). Placing the breeder programme under safeguards, then, ensures that the reactors are never used as a "laundry", effectively limiting India's ability to produce fissile material through this route.

Though the breeder programme has emerged as a potentially intractable issue, news from the technical talks was not all bleak. There was some forward movement on the question of CIRUS, the Canadian supplied 40 MW research reactor which has been a mainstay of the Indian nuclear weapons programme despite a `peaceful use only' pledge at the time of its purchase. The American side has given ample indication of its willingness to let bygones be bygones, provided India is also able to convince Canada about the reactor's final disposition.

One of the arguments the American side must contend with is that if India is forced to convert CIRUS to a purely civilian facility, its strategic programme would likely require the construction of a brand new research reactor whose capacity — i.e. throughput of fissile material — would probably be more than 40 MW because of economies of scale.

All told, the prospects of a substantial agreement on separation and safeguards being reached before the visit to India of President George W. Bush look slim, though Indian and U.S. officials continue to insist this is the deadline they are working towards. With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh likely to visit Washington in 2007, however, there is already talk of next year being a more realistic timeframe for resolving outstanding issues.


Mayurdas Bholanath said...

So the "viral infection" has spread from our heavy water reactors to fast breeder reactors too!

This should not have come as a surprise to our negotiators. As early as 21st December, 2005, Siddharth Varadarajan, in an article in The Hindu, ("U.S. non-proliferation group ups the ante with draft separation plan") had referred to a document authored by David Albright (President, Institute for Science and International Security), titled "Separating Indian Military and Civilian Nuclear Facilities". In this article, the Indian nuclear facilities are tabulated under three groups. Group-1, called ” Civil Nuclear Facilities", includes:

– Major Fuel Fabrication Plants,
– Power Reactors (PHWRs PWRs, and the as yet unborn AHWR!),
– Breeder Reactors both FBTR and the PFBR under construction,
– Reprocessing Plants,
– Enrichment Facilities,
– Research Reactors (including planned ones),
– Other Facilities including plants of Uranium Corporation located all over India, and,
– All known and unknown Heavy Water Production Plants.

David Albright says that the Group-1 facilities must all be placed under safeguards.

Proposals put up by Mr Albright were obviously too juicy for the negotiators on the US side to ignore!

Reading Siddarth Varadarajan's present article (re)triggered some thoughts in my mind:

 President of the US has agreed with India's PM that India is a responsible nuclear State and both have signed a document to that effect. Then why have the intrusive foreign inspectors roaming all over our country with the power of pursuit in perpetuity? Why inspections at all which imply distrust?

 India has now got into this sellout deal, overturning all previous well thought out policy decisions implemented by successive Governments over several decades, for the sake of some unnecessary and imaginary benefits, thereby letting the genie out of the bottle.

 The so-called "voluntary offer", is only as voluntary as a lady agreeing to hand over her mangalasutra to a highway robber at gun point, while pleading with him to be satisfied with robbing her of her bangles!! She committed the mistake of taking a robber-infested short cut route; let us hope she will somehow come out of this misadventure unscathed.

 While the deal so far has committed the country to a "techno-strategic" cost disproportionate to the imaginary benefits offered by the US, we have not even begun to think of the economic (monetary) cost of what we might get from the US (and NSG). Nuclear technology is not likely to be made available to us cheaply by them. Prices are bound to be padded up with "opportunity costs". Assuming they are offered at prevailing international market rates, do we have the necessary money to buy all the power plants that are projected as our need even when tied up with "Supplier's loans"? The per MWe capital cost of an India-designed and built nuclear power plant would be cheaper than an imported one built in India. The same would be true for spare parts and run-time services too.

 The best way forward is to get out of this shortsighted deal and get on with indigenous development of technology. By all means make haste, but in the right directions.

 Lest the previous bullets give a mistaken impression, let me add that I do realise that we have light-years to travel (but not on the short cut path the lady in the bullet above took!) before we can achieve optimum levels of independence in technological capability (including in nuclear and nuclear-conventional areas). Speedy progress has been inhibited in India mainly due to the socio-political environment obtaining at present. Technocrats, bureaucrats and 'politi-crats' would need to do some out of the box thinking on issues such as consistent funding and carrying out high-technology development, strategies for setting up projects, land acquisition rules and regulations, and issues relating to ensuring realistic, practical ways of ensuring safety, etc.

Ranjit B Rai said...

Lets first admit India today is more confident economically and militarily to negotiate on world issues that could impinge on India's most assured rise as a power in the East in the coming decades and much depends how India's political leaders play the game. With the rising tide they have the option to play the nuclear deal as a winning team or as groups, with less national interest and more political interests at heart. India's population and women power is turning out to become an asset something the astute Ray Cline former No 2 in CIA predicted a decade ago in his book.

The US India Nuclear deal of 18 Jul is actually a part of a wide ranging joint statement and only two small paragraphs are devoted to it. First is President Bush's offer to seek agreement from Congress to ADJUST US LAWS and policies, and that US will work with friends and allies to adjust International regimes to enable full civilian muclear energy cooperation and trade with India.No where is the NSG mentioned by name by Bush but it was cleverly introduced by Dr Manmohan Singh in his last line. Bush's words add the US will CONSULT with other participants in the Generation IV International Forum with a view towards India's inclusion. On Dr Manmohan Singh's part he has been economical and shrewd with his words and rightly, ambitious. He has equated India with US with the words INDIA WOULD RECIPROCALLY AGREE THAT IT WOULD BE READY TO ASSUME THE SAME RESPONSIBILITIES AND PRACTICES AND ACQUIRE THE SAME BENEFITS AND ADVANTAGES AS OTHER LEADING COUNTRIES WITH NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGY, LIKE UNITED STATES. He then agreed to VOLUNTARILY separate civilian nuclar facilities, continue India's moratorium on nuclear testing, and work with US for the conclusion of a multi lateral Fissile Material Cut Treaty FMCT and cleverly assured John Kerry recently of this when he called on him. This pleased Kerry and the media went to town on it but it was just repetition. Finally it is Dr Manmohan Singh who in the last line of the joint statement agreed to India's harmonization (spelt it with the American Z not s), to adhere to the MCTR and NSG guidelines.

A close reading of these brief two paragraphs, on which the negotiations hinge would tell any novice negotiator that India is in the driving seat if the word and letter of the 18 Jul statement are to be adhered to, and extraneous issues are irrelevant. A full day 7 hour long simulation game of negotiations fashioned as Indian bureacrats would conduct them, was realistically played out on this subject in IPCS think tank under PC Chari and Maj Gen Dipankar Banerjee on 12 Jan. The Indian US IAEA NSG Non Proliferators teams were drawn up with India's top most and well known retired Diplomats, Nuclear Scientists, miltary leaders and thinkers and professors from JNU, and included Prem Shankar Jha the noted columnist. Ambassador Lalit Mansingh led the Indian side and nuclear doyen Dr Raja Raman led the US side. Stephen Cohen from Brookings now in India acted as State Department. The issues that your blog has brought out inclding the FBR and India's position to stick to the letter and word came out loud and clear and it was a full day of eye opening heated discussions. The DRDOand Navy's ATV nuclear submarines, mini reactor at Kalpakam and the Ratehalli uranium enrichment plant near Mysore, Tarapur's dire need for uranium which Bush has assured and many extraneous issues like Iran's nuclear ambitions and India's strategic tie up with China on oil which irks USA, also came up and IAEA safeguards were discussed. It appears Manmohan Singh who is cautious was well advised by his NSA, Foreign Secretary and Nuclear Adviser in that order who finally crafted the agreement in the early hours of that morning in DC as reported in the media. Hence we should not be surprised by Nicholas Burns supposed reactions. It is also time US understands that just because India is a strategic partner it will be subsurvient like its NATO partners and Japan. It is also high time India declares its nuclear list for think tanks to deliberate before New York Times or such reveal it and embarass the Government.In any case it is doing rounds in Foggy Bottom and Pentagon and US Congress.

Ranjit B Rai VP Indian Maritime Foundation

Anonymous said...

In his comment above Shri Ranjit B Rai says "nuclear doyen Dr Raja Raman led the US side" in a simulation game of negotiations pertaining to the Indo-US Nuclear agreement (of July 2005), on 12th January. Although the year has not
been indicated, I take it from the context that it was on 12th January 2006.

Padma Vibhushan Dr Raja Ramanna, is considered by one and all to be one of India's foremost nuclear scientists. He passed away in September 2004. Would he have "taken the US side" even in a simulation exercise?

I wonder if Shri Ranjit Rai's reference is to Padmabhushan Prof. V Rajaraman, who is famous and wellknown in the Computer Science and IT fields.

Ranjit B Rai said...

Ref the last comment. I knew Dr Raja Ramanna and he was the arcihtect of the 1974 bomb referred to as Buddha's Smile by many. This was a Professor Raja Raman and is possibly the one you referred to as he was well versed in both nuclear issues and international affairs and I learn he is a visiting professor abroad too.

In the game on 12th Jan it was wildly but generally bandied about that India has 2 to 3 tons of plutonium P 239 to make some 200 warheads of 12 kgs each. Does any one have any better estimate or can any one confirm.

Ranjit B Rai VP IMF

Anonymous said...

That is EXACTLY what the US is trying to establish and confirm (they already have an estimate, and have probably deliberately kite-flown it too).