20 July 2005

India's nuclear bargain with U.S. may prove costly in long run

20 July 2005
The Hindu

Opinion - News Analysis

Nuclear bargain may prove costly in long run

Siddharth Varadarajan

IAEA inspections at civilian plants will hamper nuclear programme, say experts.

— Photo: PTI

BONHOMIE, AT WHAT COST?: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush after the ceremonial reception at the White House in Washington on Monday.

THE JOINT statement released in Washington after Monday's meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush is `historic' in many different ways but none more so than on the nuclear front. Both India and the United States have abandoned positions that were, until yesterday, virtual articles of faith for their respective establishments. The U.S. says it is now in favour of "full civil nuclear energy cooperation" with India, which it describes as "a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology". In return, India has agreed to "separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities and programs in a phased manner" and place its "civilian nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards."

While both sides have shown considerable flexibility, it is India that has leapt a greater distance in conceding a key demand of the Bush administration that the IAEA be allowed to monitor the `non-military' side of the Indian nuclear energy programme. Apprehending such a decision, former and serving scientists at the Department of Atomic Energy had told The Hindu on Sunday that allowing international inspectors access to all civilian nuclear plants would seriously hamper ongoing research work on the fast breeder reactor (FBR) programme and compromise India's long-term energy security. On Tuesday, when news came from Washington confirming that this was precisely the bargain struck, the scientists reacted with anger and disbelief.

`Against national interest'

"I shudder to think how we could have conceded such a thing," A.N. Prasad, former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), told this writer. "It is totally against the national interest." India, he said, would now face the prospect of its FBR programme being undermined and the cost of its nuclear weapons programme dramatically escalating.

According to Dr. Prasad, segregation of civilian and military facilities in the nuclear field in India is "impossible." "Our military activities are not aimed at stockpiling nuclear weapons," he said. "Rather, the aim is deterrence, which in turn is based on a given level of threat perception." Since the United States and the other big nuclear weapons state have doctrines based on stockpiling, they can perhaps afford to maintain dedicated military facilities for the production and maintenance of nuclear munitions. "But even they are finding that stockpiling imposes further costs. The weapons become old, their materials degrade, they have to be dismantled and replaced."

For India, he said, going down the route of stockpiling — which is what the logic of the Indo-U.S. joint statement implies — would be "highly counterproductive" and costly. Separating the civilian from the nuclear, as the Prime Minister has committed the country to doing, means having "declared, dedicated facilities for the military side which will necessarily have to be kept under-utilised" since the stated logic of the Indian nuclear weapons programme is "minimum deterrence."

Today, the Indian deterrent is maintained by "incremental efforts" from existing "civilian" nuclear facilities around the country and not just the two research reactors at BARC, Dhruva and CIRUS. "We produce what we need for the military programme at any given time and leave the rest for civilian use," says Dr. Prasad. "Having dedicated facilities will terribly raise the cost of the weapons programme." According to P.R. Chari of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, the BARC reactors that produce weapon-grade plutonium also facilitate a significant amount of civilian research and activity, such as the production of radio isotopes. Firewalling military and civilian nuclear activities would mean denying scientists from university departments across the country access to BARC's research facilities.

Danger in safeguards

As far as India's "voluntary" commitment to place civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards is concerned, the agreement Dr. Singh reached with Mr. Bush is a compromise between the dreaded "full-scope safeguards" (which would include military facilities) and the "facility-specific safeguards" that the Department of Atomic Energy was prepared to concede. However, full-scope safeguards was always a bogey rather than a real problem — as the U.S. has been reconciled to India's nuclear weapons status ever since the Strobe Talbott-Jaswant Singh talks began during the Clinton administration. In the "four benchmarks" Mr. Talbott insisted on at the time, neither full-scope nor partial IAEA safeguards figured anywhere, though "strategic restraint," a nuclear test ban, export control, and work on a fissile material cut-off agreement did.

Ever since Mitchell Reiss, head of the U.S. State Department's Policy Planning Division in the first Bush administration, started advocating IAEA safeguards for Indian civilian nuclear facilities, the DAE had been bracing itself for the day when this would be pushed through. At stake, says Dr. Prasad, is the fast breeder programme and its eventual third stage when India's huge reserves of thorium will allow it to enjoy energy security "for the next 300 years." "Allowing IAEA inspectors and signing the Additional Protocol means throwing open not just your reactors but the entire chain, the whole fuel cycle. This is the crux of the whole issue." Only those who have worked on advanced nuclear research know the harmful effect intrusive inspections can have, he added.

The FBR, he says, "is sacred for us in the long-run. Once we get into thorium, no one can touch us. If we do it and succeed, we will be on top of the world. But to reach there, we need full freedom to do our research. Nobody should be breathing down our necks."

While the joint statement goes out of its way to suggest India will accept only those safeguards obligations "as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology, such as the United States," the impact of IAEA inspections on Indian plants is likely to be far greater than anything the U.S. has experienced.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2004 on the Additional Protocol the U.S. has signed with the IAEA, Susan L. Burk, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Non-proliferation, said that U.S. compliance with international safeguards served a "basically political purpose" of "underscoring U.S. support" for the IAEA-run inspections process worldwide. "[S]afeguards in the U.S.," she noted, "are not directed at uncovering illicit or non-compliant nuclear activities." In the two decades since the U.S. voluntarily accepted IAEA safeguards, she said, only 17 of its 250 declared civilian nuclear facilities had ever been inspected. In 1993, the IAEA discontinued its inspections because of budgetary constraints and agreed to restart them only after the U.S. said it would reimburse the agency's expenses. Today, the IAEA applies safeguards at only four U.S. facilities.

Even if India negotiates a similar Additional Protocol with the IAEA and builds in the same `national security exclusion,' it is unlikely to get away that lightly. The safeguards the U.S. is subject to are "very nominal," says Dr. Prasad but India will find the agency being "much more meticulous" in its case. Ever since the NPT regime began, the U.S. has been keen to get a fix on the Indian programme. To begin with, the IAEA is bound to go on a voyage of discovery. Later, it might move on to more constricting inspections.

"Tomorrow, if we need to pursue reprocessing or separation technology further, there are bound to be objections. The U.S. is likely to say, `Don't do it, we will give you the fuel'. But then you are back to being dependent."

For India, there is the added danger of front-loading its own obligations under the joint statement. President Bush has committed himself to working with the U.S. Congress and America's allies to make an "exception" in the existing domestic and international regulatory framework for India but this is not likely to be a straightforward matter. Calling India a "state with advanced nuclear technology" has helped the U.S. bridge a semantic gap but it is not clear whether it will help the wider world of NPT signatories and Nuclear Suppliers Group members bridge what they perceive to be a legal gap.

There is one final issue that needs to be highlighted. What was the need for India to reiterate its commitment — in a bilateral statement — to a moratorium on nuclear tests? At the very least, India should have insisted that the U.S. too reiterate its own moratorium and not pursue research on new nuclear munitions like "bunker busters" and space-based weapons. Not to speak of its disarmament obligations as a state with "advanced nuclear technology." Presumably, silence on these issues is also part of the grand nuclear bargain.

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Madhavan said...

Interesting idea to compile stories on blog!

Anonymous said...

What is India's threat perception. Are we not fully equipped against our threat perception for the next fifty years, with our arsenal of bombs? We may need to fine tune our delivery systems. That is the only requirement we have.

Anonymous said...

From this article one gets an opinion that India throws open its facilities for inspection in return for nothing. I dont think we are that stupid. I hope that some details missing in this article.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, totally opposing viewpoint expressed here: