Have we accepted a Hydebound waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)? Are we protected from the repercussions of a nuclear test? Is our energy problem over? The answer, as usual, is: it depends.
The 123 Agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and now the NSG waiver are all consciously ambiguous about certain events. This ambiguity permits various countries to interpret them differently. How they will act if such an event occurs will not be determined by their interpretation today, but by the geopolitical circumstances of that future. That, in turn, depends on India’s future relationship with key supplier countries, determined, in part, by how strong and self-reliant we become economically and politically.
Here, India’s approach at NSG bodes ill. Do we see the waiver as something that the US obtained for us, or one that we acquired with the help of the US? If, as the Left apprehends, our foreign policy is too aligned and dependent on the US, we will lose our ability to independently manoeuvre with other countries, were it to abandon us.
The US state department, in its response to the declaratory sections of the Hyde Act, 102(12) and 103(6)(a)—which says that other NSG group members should be persuaded to terminate cooperation if the US does so—pointed to the NSG guidelines, which says that suppliers should agree on “possible action, which could include termination of nuclear transfers”. It is widely speculated that its letter was made public by Congressman Berman to align the NSG waiver with the Hyde Act. He may have succeeded—to an extent.
The India-specific IAEA Safeguards Agreement states in effect that “taking into account (that India may take corrective measures...in the event of disruption of foreign fuel supplies), India and the Agency have agreed...” to its provisions. If the purported text of the NSG waiver is accurate, it is similar in structure. It says: “Based on the...(steps that India has voluntarily taken with respect to continuing its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing), Participating Governments...” are adopting the requisite waivers. One interpretation can certainly be that if the unilateral moratorium ends, the waivers can be suspended.
If we do conduct a nuclear explosive test, a right that we retain, there is little ambiguity that the US state department considers that it would have the right to stop cooperation and do so immediately, without the one-year consultation period specified in Article 14(1) of the 123 Agreement, if it determines that “a mutually acceptable resolution of outstanding issues... cannot be achieved through consultations”, as specified in Article 14(2).
Our protections against such a situation are unspecified “corrective measures” that would again depend on the geopolitics of that time, and a “strategic (lifetime) reserve” for our reactors. Look at this closely. There are two reactor types. One uses non-enriched uranium and the other low-enriched uranium. So, first, to stockpile fuel for the latter, India will depend on international enrichment facilities till we can grow our domestic capacity. Second, every 1,000MW reactor consumes about 120 tonnes of uranium ore annually. Even a 20-year supply for four reactors a year, for 10 years (an expansion slower than that of France, when it increased its nuclear share from 8% to 75% over 1973 to 1990), would mean 10,000 tonnes of uranium each year; about 25% of current global production. Even discounting its effect on uranium prices, which have already risen 10-fold in this decade, this is unlikely to be physically available, especially when China and other countries are also moving to nuclear energy. Building lifetime reserves will thus take some time and in the interim, India’s legal right to test may remain ineffective.
There are two nuclear futures for India. The first is a straight bargain. In return for abjuring testing, we can expand our nuclear electricity supply by relying on imported fuel. But, like our current unsustainable dependence on imported oil, which at least has an open market, this will not solve our energy problem. Known reserves of uranium cannot sustain a nuclear renaissance simultaneously in the US, India and China, even till 2050.
The second is more complex. It leverages the end of our nuclear technology isolation to develop our indigenous three-stage thorium-based programme. In this, we use the interim window to generate sufficient starter fuel, such as plutonium, to sustainably grow the programme and make our thorium technology commercially feasible. Thorium based nuclear power will be substantially longer lived than uranium, but the energy possibilities will become truly limitless if we succeed in developing a true breeder reactor. This research is the most advanced in India, because other countries focused on weapons-related uranium, but it still has a few critical gaps. If we increase our R&D investment in thorium as much as we ramp up our nuclear energy share, these gaps can be filled, especially with international collaboration.
In recent testimony before the US Senate, Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the home of the Manhattan Project, stated: “It may well be that today we limit ourselves by not having full access to India’s nuclear technology developments.” Can we have similar confidence in our research and provide it unstinted support? In the final analysis, it is this that will determine who this weekend’s development benefits more—us or the US.
Partha Mukhopadhyay is with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org