07 February 2006

A question mark now hangs over the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal

Unless Washington blinks on the Fast Breeder reactor and voluntary safeguards, the agreement will not fly in India.

7 February 2006
The Hindu

Question mark over Indo-U.S. nuclear deal

Siddharth Varadarajan

FOR THE past few weeks, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has been the subject of a smear campaign orchestrated by those who feel the Indo-U.S. agreement on civil nuclear cooperation will unravel unless the country's nuclear scientists quickly fall in line.

As first reported by this writer in The Hindu ("Safeguards for breeder reactors a key obstacle," January 21, 2006), the last meeting of the Indo-U.S. working group on the civilian-military separation question saw the two sides getting stuck on a number of vital issues. Top among these was India's fast-breeder programme, which the Indian delegation chose not to offer for international safeguards but which the U.S. insisted had to be listed on the civilian side and subjected to scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Following that meeting, a number of articles and reports appeared in several Indian newspapers attacking the DAE and its scientists for refusing to place the breeder programme under safeguards and for generally being obstructionist. Writers who seven years ago had sung the praises of the DAE's scientists for making nuclear bombs now started describing them as inept "reactionaries" whose work was "outdated." One story, quoting unnamed officials in high places, asserted that the Prime Minister would eventually ensure that these recalcitrant scientists all fell in line. It is fair to assume that these unnamed "officials" were not from the Indian Government because sending out such a message at a time when negotiations are delicately poised was tantamount to telling the U.S. they could continue to be inflexible. Why would anyone on the Indian side want to do that?

Whether or not there was a pattern in this media reportage, the scientists certainly saw one. Not surprisingly, they felt bitter and aggrieved. The DAE might have drawn up a number of separation options but the choice of which one to select and present to the U.S. last December had been taken at the very highest level. Indeed, once Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran presented those ideas to his counterpart in Washington, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, the plan formally became an "Indian" plan and was no longer the product of a single department or ministry. Until that point, everything was fine. Indeed, "knowledgeable" articles appeared here and there about how good the Indian separation plan was and how all the fears that the Government would not protect the country's interest were misplaced. It was only after the U.S. side — following the January meeting in Delhi — began denouncing the Indian plan as "inadequate" and "indefensible from the non-proliferation perspective" that the high-decibel campaign against the scientists began.

After a period of dignified silence, the Department of Atomic Energy has now sought to clear the air. In an interview to Pallava Bagla in the Indian Express on February 6, DAE chairman Anil Kakodkar has said the American insistence on specifying which Indian facilities must be placed on the civilian list was tantamount to changing "the goalpost." Dr. Kakodkar said the July 18, 2005 agreement made it clear the "determination [of what goes on the civilian list] has to be made by the Indians... (for) India's strategic interests will have to be decided by India and not by others."

Echoing an argument he first made in an interview to T.S. Subramaniam in The Hindu (August 12), Dr. Kakodkar said it would not be in India's strategic interest to place the Fast Breeder programme in the civilian list. "Both, from the point of view of maintaining long term energy security and for maintaining the minimum credible deterrent (as defined by the nuclear doctrine), the Fast Breeder programme just cannot be put on the civilian list. This would amount to getting shackled and India certainly cannot compromise one for the other," he said.

The interview has spelt out in the clearest possible language the reasons why the U.S. pressure on India's Fast Breeder programme is not acceptable. If the Bush administration was foolishly hoping the Prime Minister could be forced to crack his whip and get his negotiators to fall in line, this public enunciation of Indian strategic interests by someone in the know will surely have put paid to those plans.

Washington must know that a separation plan in which the Fast Breeder programme is safeguarded will simply not fly in this country. After Dr. Kakodkar's statements, the political consequences would be far too serious. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Parliament on July 29, 2005 that India would not accept any discrimination in nuclear matters but discrimination is precisely what the U.S. has in mind when it insists that a voluntary offer safeguards agreement of the type it has is simply not on the agenda. On this demand too, the Bush administration will have to back off.

If Washington stops moving the goal post and agrees to effectualise its offer of civilian nuclear cooperation on the basis of the text of the July 18 agreement, there is a reasonable chance of the nuclear deal going through.

But if it is expecting the Manmohan Singh Government to blink, Dr. Kakodkar's latest interview will almost certainly ensure that does not happen. Some people are suggesting he spoke out of turn and did not get prior political clearance from the Prime Minister's Office for what he said. In fact, as the top official in charge of India's atomic establishment, the DAE chairman can never speak out of turn. Those inclined to criticise him should learn to make a virtue out of necessity. Indeed, the supporters of Indo-U.S. nuclear cooperation should realise that by drawing a thick red line out in the open, Dr. Kakodkar has done the only thing which can still salvage the deal: telling the Americans that if they don't blink, the agreement will die a natural death.


Mayurdas Bholanath said...

In a way, I am happy to read Mr Varadarajan's latest article in The Hindu (his present blog entry) because it shows that more people are realising the dangers posed by this sell-out deal which was signed in a most non-transparent manner. The opacity aspect has already been discussed elsewhere in Mr Varadarajan's blog.

It had been anticipated and predicted that eventually, US will not accept the much-touted idea put forward by the Indian negotiators in July 2005, whereby India would sign a "Voluntary Agreement" with the same conditions as in US's own Voluntary Agreement (which was never put into force). Only many refused to - and many still see merit in refusing to - see the writing on the wall.

On the other hand, I am a bit disappointed that Mr Varadarajan has not thought it fit to highlight that even PHWRs built by India, using India-mined Uranium ought not to be placed under safeguards at all. Perhaps he feels that if Fast Reactors are taken out of the 'inspections' list, then automatically the PHWRs which feed the Fast Reactors would also not be listed under the "snoopable" category. On the basis of papers presented by India's scientists and engineers in various technical seminars and journals, one can see that years of high quality indigenous effort has gone into the building of these PHWRs under very exacting conditions; the effort involved has been not less than that in Fast Reactors. As a matter of fact, one can realise that at the moment, several PHWRs are operational and working well. So the IPR concerns associated with PHWRs too, relate to proven technology and are very real.

The simple formula should be that no India-designed reactor should be put under safeguards and called upon to account for either nuclear or non-nuclear material, as long as imported fuel is not used. Threat of perpetual pursuit is particularly obnoxious. It goes without saying that imported fuel should not be used in any India-designed and constructed reactor.

It perhaps is necessary to ponder, why has India entered into this mess at all? Whose brainwave was this and what were his/her/their reasons? Was it to curry favour with America for a UN Security Council seat together with veto powers? Does the Indian government have the necessary courage to use its veto power, if and when required, or will it kowtow to the US line at all times a la Iran Vote?

My theory is that in the nuclear power reactor sector, people who had to deliver the goods, had made tall claims which they well knew, could not be met, but felt obliged to do so for tactical reasons like getting adequate funding from the government of the day, which was not always headed by persons who had the vision and capability of Jawaharlal Nehru. Mainly due to the inherent lack of industrial strength in the country, the promised outputs could not be delivered within the promised time (although they ultimately have been and are being delivered). This was aggravated by various pressure groups of different hues in India and abroad trying to retard every advancement, every project. One of the main motivations for their strongly negative vote on any development activity is the loss of their properties to the "land acquisition" process as well as rules, regulations and severe limitations on what an owner can do with even his un-acquired property which happens to be near the project site. To hide this "shortage in performance", various bloated and unattainable energy projections had to be made and import of nuclear reactors justified. This, I think, is the genesis for the "deal", which of course could not be made to fructify unless there was a sell-out too.

Thus has come about the sell-out of our country's technological independence. I am pretty sure, in India's past history too, there would have been similar cases of sell-outs to the Moghuls and the Europeans; only that would have been in the political realm, not technology. If my knowledge of history is good enough, I think Ambi rajah sold "Indika" to Alexander circa 320 BC, back-stabbing king Pururavas. ( See this article in The Hindu)

Now, what will happen if the deal falls through? Although pretty simple, it is not a pleasant thought. Progress will be achieved, but at a slower pace. One must anticipate that the US and others may tighten their technology control on India and prohibit supply of even the few non-dual use items which may be required for the npps. I believe in the proposition that they cannot afford to ban sale of all items to India irrespective of whether they are required for an npp or any other industry, although one can never say - they may do it, just out of spite, as they are trying to do to Iran now. I strongly feel that we should treat this situation as an opportunity to continue development of conventional and specialised nuclear parts manufacture in our country, with renewed vigour. Our country can become a developed one, only when we give up the inappropriate cliche that "wheels should not be reinvented".

To end, referring to the last paragraph of Mr Varadarajan's article, I for one would like two things to happen:

(1) US should refuse to "blink" - most certainly we should not blink.
(2) Mr Varadarajan is proven right in predicting the consequence of (1) above - that the deal will fall through.

That, I consider, is the only result which would be in our country's interest.

Anonymous said...

Hi Siddharth,

Kudos for another exceptional article.

Sorry for my simplistic view, but US acts only on self-interest.

America has two ajendas in mind:
1-To prevent the operation of iranian pipeline, simply because iran has defied its power.
2-To establish counterwait against china by empowering india. US would love to have another Sino-Indian war.

Indians should forget about the deal. As soon India abondons the pipeline, US will end the co-operation.

Trust my word. US is the biggest threat to world peace.

Take care.

Siddharth Varadarajan said...

Thank you Mayurdas Bholanath for another extremely interesting and well-informed comment.

He is right that I should have been more explicit about the PHWRs which will feed the Fast Breeder programme also ipso facto being out of the purview of safeguards. This point has been made very explicitly by DAE chairman Anil Kakodkar in his interview to Pallava Bagla, published first as a news report in the Indian Express on February 6 and now as a detailed transcript on February 8. Interested readers can see his interview here.