Reprocessed nuclear arguments

Reprocessed nuclear arguments
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First Published: Mon, Jul 20 2009. 09 36 PM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Mon, Jul 20 2009. 09 36 PM IST
It was not the obviousness of the Group of Eight’s, or G-8’s, geopolitical irrelevance. It was not the significance of the Chinese President Hu Jintao’s need to fly back to Beijing due to the ethnic riots in Xinjiang. It was one sentence buried deep inside the verbosity of the output of the recently concluded G-8 summit at L’Aquila in Italy that grabbed public attention in India and caused anxiety meters to shoot up. That sentence said, effectively, that G-8 nations would take measures to prevent the transfer of nuclear enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technologies to countries that are not signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
But don’t blame yourself if you have difficulty navigating the jargon, subtext and the commentators’ agenda in trying to understand what it means. First, though, let’s take a step back and consider what the nuclear deal is about.
The deal—which comprises the bilateral agreements between India and the US; US domestic law in the form of the Hyde Act, and the multilateral “clean waiver” at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)—allows India to import foreign reactors and nuclear fuel for generating electricity. These reactors and fuel supplies will be under an international inspection regime (called “safeguards”) under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which will ensure that they are not used for producing weapons.
Two things follow: First, provided the domestic nuclear power sector is liberalized, it will be much easier for India to address the acute energy shortage that threatens to undermine long-term economic growth. Second, scarce domestic sources of nuclear fuel (as well as, potentially, foreign sources outside NSG) will be freed up for use in the weapons programme.
There is nothing in what the G-8 leaders said earlier this month that changes this. But wait, didn’t they, as Siddharth Varadarajan argued in The Hindu recently, call for a “ban” on the transfer of ENR technologies to India, even to safeguarded civilian facilities? Yes, but it doesn’t really matter.
It only means that eight of the 45 countries of NSG have agreed to implement a draft of a text that NSG itself has not yet agreed to. NSG is a cartel, not a treaty, and its agreements are non-binding on its members. G-8 is a loose group, not even a cartel, less a treaty, and its agreements are non-binding on its members.
France and Russia are aware that the US disadvantaged itself as a nuclear supplier to India by hobbling itself with the Hyde Act which restricts the scope of US nuclear business with India. Are they likely to sign away a long-term competitive commercial advantage for the sake of a lofty principle? Quite unlikely.
But what if they do? Well, it only means that the spent fuel from civilian nuclear reactors will have to be sent back to reprocessing facilities abroad. While this might change the price of the fuel—and affect the competitiveness of the supplier of that fuel—it does not disturb the security of India’s fuel supply.
Since India has its own indigenous reprocessing technology, the “ban” on ENR exports to India, were it ever to materialize, does not affect the ability to produce fissile material for the nuclear arsenal. Even Varadarajan admits that India is “technologically self-sufficient in reprocessing and enrichment technology” and its inclusion in the India-US nuclear deal was a “matter of principle, positioning and paisa (money).”
So, it turns out that even in the worst case—if the G-8 countries decide to overturn bilateral agreements, voluntarily give up their competitive advantages and somehow prevent others from seizing strategic opportunities— India’s energy security and nuclear programme will remain substantially unaffected.
To the extent the anxiety is over whether G-8—at the Obama administration’s behest—takes away the benefits of the nuclear deal, it is largely unwarranted. But this is a signal that the Obama administration intends to put India back into the old “non-nuclear state” corner, even as it goes back to the arms control and non-proliferation route to nuclear disarmament. The old alphabet soup of CTBT (the comprehensive test ban treaty), FMCT (the fissile material cut-off treaty) and NPT is back on the table. Disagreements and differences of opinion are on the cards, but because of the nuclear deal, India is in a much better position to deal with these than it would have been without it.
It might be that the Obama administration’s prejudices make it less sensitive to its own need to strengthen the India-US relationship by building on common interests. On any number of issues— from balancing China, stabilizing Afghanistan-Pakistan, to engaging Iran and addressing climate change—the US cannot do without India’s cooperation. It will be impossible for the United Progressive Alliance government to take bold steps in any of these areas if the US is seen as insensitive to Indian interests or, worse, reneging on its commitments.
Nitin Pai is editor ofPragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Jul 20 2009. 09 36 PM IST