19 January 2006

Make the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal more transparent

If the civil-military separation plan is good enough to share with a foreign power, it is certainly good enough to share with the Indian public.

19 January 2005
The Hindu

Make the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal more transparent

Siddharth Varadarajan

THE INDO-U.S. working group on civilian nuclear cooperation will meet for the third time on Thursday with the American response to the Indian separation plan topping the agenda for discussion. During the last round of technical talks in Washington in December, Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran — who heads the Indian side — handed over a document specifying the underlying principles that will cover the proposed separation of India's civil and military nuclear facilities. The U.S. side, led by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, chose not to respond to the Indian document at that time and is likely to present to India this week a detailed response and, possibly, a counter-plan.

Though the Manmohan Singh Government has kept its separation plan under tight wraps in India, the document has been circulated among select U.S. Senators and Representatives. Indeed, feedback of sorts has already started coming. At a seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC last week, Sharon Squassoni of the Congresional Research Service (CRS) suggested that the Indian plan would not pass muster on the Hill. "Reportedly, the first separation plan for separating the facilities was not credible or defensible. And also reportedly India has not yet contacted the International Atomic Energy Agency to talk about safeguards. Those are the two things that need to happen," PTI quoted her as saying. Ms. Squassoni is the principal author of the CRS report on the July 18, 2005 deal, a report that raised a number of "proliferation" concerns about the prospects of Indo-U.S. nuclear cooperation. Either she has seen the plan herself or has received feedback from those who have. Though Ms. Squassoni is a known critic of the deal, it is reasonable to assume that her characterisation of the plan would be shared — or at least exploited — by members of the official American negotiating team.

The Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement had spoken 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." These "same responsibilities and practices" were then spelt out, inter alia, as: "identifying and separating civilian and military nuclear facilities and programs in a phased manner and filing a declaration regarding its civilian facilities with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); taking a decision to place voluntarily its civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards; (and) signing and adhering to an Additional Protocol with respect to civilian nuclear facilities."

U.S. reinterpretation

In the intervening months, the United States has attempted to reinterpret this fairly straightforward language in several ways and introduce new conditions. First, it said the separation of civilian and military facilities had to be "credible, defensible and transparent." None of these conditions obtain for the separation of civilian and military facilities in the U.S. or the other "leading countries with advanced nuclear technology." Then it said the separation plan had to pass muster in the U.S. Congress. Finally, it said the placing of civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards had to be done mandatorily and in perpetuity, rather than voluntarily as the July 18 statement clearly says. In addition, the Bush administration has made it clear that the deal's success is also linked in some way to the wider strategic realignment it is trying to engineer in Indian foreign policy. Joining hands against Iran is one issue that has already come to the fore. No doubt Washington has other expectations as well.

Though the Indian atomic establishment appears to have overcome its initial reservations about the July 18 agreement, there is a broad consensus among the scientists on at least three issues. First, under no circumstances should the agreement — and the conditions that come with it — compromise India's technological independence in the nuclear field. According to them, India's own reserves of uranium as well as its indigeneous reactor programme will enable it to produce at least 207 gigawatts of electricity by 2052, or around 15 per cent of the projected national requirement of 1350 GW. For this to happen, the country needs to preserve its independence in heavy water reactors, fast breeders, and accelerator driven systems. Thus, all experimental and research facilities should be kept off the civilian list for safeguards purposes, including the fast breeder reactor.

Secondly, the flexibility required for keeping the costs associated with India's strategic programme down to a minimum must be preserved. Thirdly, the safeguards agreement and additional protocol should not compromise proprietary technology and information, nor should they involve the principle of pursuit or the accounting of past materials balances. Here, the U.S. additional protocol — including the so-called "Brill letter" stipulating additional constraints on what the IAEA can inspect — would serve as the appropriate model.

From the perspective of the scientists, there is no reason why sui generis safeguards cannot be crafted to address India's concerns about its autonomous technology development as well as the very reasonable concerns of any future partner that cooperation provided to the Indian civilian nuclear sector not leak out to its military programme. These could take the form of `in perpetuity', INFCIRC-66 type safeguards for imported facilities, while something approximating the U.S.-style voluntary safeguards is applied to all indigenously developed facilities.

Unlike New Delhi's strategic community — which tends to believe India is in urgent need of U.S. assistance in the nuclear field — our nuclear scientists feel India has a huge edge in human resources and that the U.S. stands to benefit a great deal from the initiation of bilateral nuclear cooperation. The U.S. has not built a new reactor since 1979 and has a gap of at least two generations when it comes to those with hands-on experience of running a nuclear power plant from the start.

The Canadians too have recognised India's expertise in refurbishing the Candu reactors and would be interested in an Indian role in their own nuclear industry. In short, the scientific consensus is that India is coming to the nuclear table from a position of strength and should be well placed to resist any untoward pressure during its negotiations with the U.S. on the fine print of the July 18 deal.

There is one last issue for the Manmohan Singh Government to consider. If the separation plan is good enough to hand over to a foreign power and circulate in its capital, there is no earthly reason why the same should not be made public in some form on this side as well. The U.S. excels in using dissent within and outside its political system as a tactic in tough negotiations with foreign countries. The Indian Government must now do the same.

The more informed comment and discussion there is, the better will be the degree of public understanding about the technical and political contours of the nuclear agreement. If the Government is confident about the correctness of the path it is going down, there should be no hesitation in encouraging the widest possible debate. Conversely, unnecessary secrecy can only lead to the assumption — right or wrong — that the Government has something to hide.

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Anonymous said...

The PHWR bequeathed by Bhabha and assiduously evolved and successfully developed by India with several unique innovations, is a "Kamadhenu". Every Indian PHWR not only gives electricity but also many other materials which are of both economic and strategic value in the immediate, near and long-term future. It has some features that the US-built PWRs and BWRs do not have, which enable economic "harvesting" of these materials feasible. In this context, reference to fast breeders and accelerator driven systems in the article are relevant. It is for this very reason that the Indian nuclear technology is under "attack" by the US.

Anonymous said...

I can endorse the point made in this article about Indian expertise in Candu reactors. Not just in terms of refurbishing and maintenance, but even in terms of the lowest cost, best quality spare parts and equipment, the Indian nuclear industry is considered the best in the world today by all the countries and operators who are part of the Candu owners association, including Canada itself and South Korea. We had to live with sanctions for years but this has made our technology highly adaptive. The Indian nuclear engineers have learnt to produce more from less. Just look at the incredible burn-up rates achieved at our PHWR reactors. Or the successes in MOX fabrication and the use of carbide fuels for the breeder. India is a technology LEADER in these areas and is steadily building to the stage where the thorium economy will kick in.

Swamy VKN said...

Thank you for the article Siddharth. Great read.

Anonymous said...

Indian nuke scientists differ from PMO on US deal

India's top nuclear scientists are determined not to allow the United States have a full say in the separation of the country's military and civilian nuclear facilities.

The Americans' insistence on a full, and not as initially stated, phased separation plan was the initial bone of contention, with the nuclear establishment particularly worried about the pressure to place the fast breeder reactors on the civilian program that will be subject to intrusive IAEA inspections under the additional protocol.

The initial assurance that India will be recognized as a nuclear weapons state on par with US is also not being met, leading to deep apprehension among the scientists that the country's nuclear program is being brought 'through the back door' under a stringent inspections regime, reported a leading English daily Asian Age here Wednesday.

The media is being used now by both the Americans and the Prime Minister's Office, through select briefings, to push the deal forward although, as well-placed sources pointed out, 'it has run into trouble' and will require Dr Manmohan Singh's direct intervention by accepting key US conditions to push it out of the woods.

The PMO officials have reportedly made it apparent that they would like the separation plans to be finalized, and the agreement to be placed on course for the approval of the US Congress before the visit of US President George W. Bush to India.

The civilian nuclear agreement was based on three major assurances that have since been overruled by Washington. One, as the sources pointed out, was the voluntary identification and separation of military and civilian facilities. Two, that this would be done in phases. Three, India would be recognized as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology status at par with the US. The voluntary nature of the agreement has been lost, with the Bush administration clear that the separation plans had to be vetted and approved by it.

The sources pointed out that the second assurance too has been negated with the US demand that the separation plans should be complete and immediate.

The US condition now that the safeguards should be 'in perpetuity', the sources added, makes a mockery of the third assurance as it denies recognition of India as a responsible nuclear power.

The whispers of unhappiness with the civilian nuclear agreement from the Department of Atomic Energy surfaced during this visit of US pointperson Nicholas Burns, who led a large team of officials for consultations with Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran. A third round of talks is scheduled for February, although Burns did not sound very optimistic of a breakthrough and admitted that certain difficulties had cropped up.

Dr. Manmohan Singh is reportedly very keen to get this agreement through as it is being equated with his earlier stint in government when he had ushered in -- as his media adviser Sanjaya Baru often tells journalists -- a new era of economic reforms.

There is genuine fear in the pro-nuclear lobby that India's strategic interests will be compromised if the US proposals are accepted in entirety, with sources pointing out that the very idea of separating the civilian program from the military was fraught with consequences that would undermine the nation's nuclear sovereignty.

The face-off on the fast breeder program that is seen as unique by the nation's nuclear establishment and other aspects of the agreement will need a prime ministerial directive to resolve, with sources pointing out that any such move might not have the support of the nuclear establishment.