In a sense, the nuclear winter is finally over. And spring is not a distant climatological event. On 20 July, India and the US came to an agreement on taking the 18 July 2005, George W. Bush–Manmohan Singh nuclear accord forward. The two-year interregnum witnessed furious debates in both countries. The Bush Jr administration appears to have accepted India’s position on reprocessing of spent fuel and use of the extracted plutonium for new reactors in line with the Bhabha strategy worked out in the 1950s. This will enable the US to sell nuclear fuel and equipment to India, as well as wedge open a door that holds the key to trade with the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG)—of countries possessing the precious fuel and power plant technology. All this after a gap of 33 years—in 1974, the Pokhran tests had led to India’s nuclear isolation.
Over the years, the debates on the nuclear issue have witnessed more heat and less light. The country faced a swirling dust storm that had the inflammable elements of “patriotism, self-reliance and loss of sovereignty”, which created avoidable confusion in the minds of the public and some political parties. In the US, too, there were charges of a “sell-out” and damage to the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
Here, it is necessary to assert that it is the government’s prerogative to take political decisions after considering “advisory” inputs from as large a spectrum of professionals—international affairs, domestic politics, economics, science and technology, et al.—as possible. It is now an established tradition in India that the government takes the final decision on bilateral or multilateral undertakings. It is desirable, of course, that the matter is debated in Parliament. But the absence of such a debate does not render government actions in this context illegal, immoral, infructuous, or fattening.
Indeed, the progress on the pact in question has several positive implications.
Energy security, encompassing competitively priced electricity, for an economy growing annually by 7–8% is a vital necessity; more so high crude oil prices. Though the nuclear component in our energy basket is just about 3% at present, this will change—there are locations where nuclear electricity would be viable. But the bottom seems to be falling out of the domestic nuclear programme due to a serious shortage in indigenously produced natural uranium fuel. There are reports that the existing power reactors have been forced to operate at lower-than-rated power capacity. The new deal could dissolve resistance from the NSG, paving the way for unlimited access to fuel.
On the national security front, there are reasons to believe that India’s Minimum Credible Deterrent (MCD) would not be affected by turn-key power reactors built by other countries. The accumulated weapons-grade plutonium in about 40 years of operating the CIRUS reactor (40MWt) and the relatively new Dhruv reactor (100MWt) has been estimated to be sufficient for the MCD.
Supplier countries are welcome to take the spent fuel back (if, indeed that will be demanded); or, as is more likely to be the case, India would have to store it in cooling ponds till such time that opposition to reprocessing ceases. It is relevant to note that Russia has built the Koodangulam power reactors (1,000Mwe) and disposition of the spent fuel has not been an issue. In any case, there are serious doubts whether reactor-grade plutonium would be useful for building nuclear weapons with predicted yields. This, since weapon designers argue that the reactor grade plutonium contains an isotope, Pu 240, which “poisons” the bomb.
There has been acknowledgement of sorts by Bush Jr of our nuclear status reflected in these comments: India is “a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology”; it “should acquire the same benefits as other such states”; and he “will work to achieve full civilian nuclear cooperation” and “adjust” US laws with the support of Congress. He also said he would seek the support of allies. One now hopes there will be no (or reduced) US opposition to our cooperation ongoing with Russia, and, possibly later, with France. But we will have to “watch this space”.
We have some unpleasant memories—following the 1974 tests, supply of fuel for the Tarapore reactors was halted. But, in fairness, it must be acknowledged that the US didn’t oppose supply by France, and later by China. It could have been worse, otherwise. India has now rightly insisted on assurances of fuel supply for imported reactors. And the prospect of US firms undertaking turnkey power reactor construction in India is not a natural corollary to the deal—since no new nuclear reactors have come up in the US for more than three decades. In fact, the situation offers an opportunity for Russia and France—their reactors are finding new markets. And while the latter’s designs may be better, the former’s reactors are cheaper.
It ought to be a matter of some satisfaction to India that the negotiations over the last two years have been marked by maturity, without any US hectoring. India has exercised remarkable restraint in the export of sensitive technologies for decades in stark contrast, say, to A.Q. Khan’s Walmart-like attempt—he tried a nuclear maal operation and came to grief. That there must have been licit or illicit state support for his operations in peddling uranium enrichment technology is understood. But, carefully, the Pakistani government has distanced itself and placed him under “house arrest”. This was sufficient to persuade the US to continue its material and financial support for the war on terror. There is wide-spread cynicism over these US policies and actions.
The current Indo-US talks are part of a wonderfully flexible word called “process”. Inherently, it is a healthy development with no implications for our national security, however broadly defined, being compromised. India has revealed a fair degree of adaptability in the post-1991 period. The entrenched foreign policy and finance regimes have trimmed their sails to the prevailing wind. But the science agencies have not been able to tune in because of “vested interests” and an inability to comprehend various dynamic forces in play. It is time to mix metaphors and say to nuclear Rip van Winkles that the time of accountability has arrived. The emperor’s clothes needed only a child to reveal the truth, not columnists.
K. Santhanam is former director, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org