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Indo-US Nuclear Deal: Unprincipled Positions

Unprincipled Positions The intensity of the debate in India on the nuclear deal with the US has increased dramatically in the last few weeks, especially after the categorical refusal by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to put the breeder programme under safeguards as part of the civil-military separation plan of the Indo-US agreement. Against this backdrop, it has become highly unlikely that there will be any firm agreement signed during president George Bush

INDO-US NUCLEAR DEAL

Unprincipled Positions

T
he intensity of the debate in India on the nuclear deal with the US has increased dramatically in the last few weeks, especially after the categorical refusal by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to put the breeder programme under safeguards as part of the civil-military separation plan of the Indo-US agreement. Against this backdrop, it has become highly unlikely that there will be any firm agreement signed during president George Bush’s forthcoming visit.

Stating principles and the desire to have future cooperation is one thing, implementing and coming up with concrete and mutually agreeable deliverables is quite another, especially when these deliverables involve rolling back policies and habits that have been put in place several decades ago. In the case of the US, the deal with India will require dismantling domestic laws passed in the 1970s, largely as a response to India’s first nuclear weapons test in 1974. It would also require them to go against what they have been preaching for decades on the international arena, especially at the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The policy antecedents in India go back even further, to the early 1960s. Despite much pressure from Canada, the DAE refused to accept safeguards at the CIRUS reactor. As the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was negotiated, India stuck to its policy of refusing safeguards at any “indigenous” facilities, even if those facilities may have been based on technology acquired partly from other countries.

In debating the merits and demerits of safeguarding the breeder programme, some basic facts need to be appreciated. First, safeguards are merely attempts to carefully account for all flows of fissile materials, such as plutonium or enriched uranium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons. The idea of imposing safeguards points to the inextricable links between the supposedly peaceful uses of atomic energy and nuclear weapons. As such, safeguards do not proscribe anything except diverting fissile materials from the facility being safeguarded. So despite claims to the contrary by the DAE, the imposition of safeguards would not necessarily hamper the breeder programme. Indeed, the Japanese breeder programme operates fully under international safeguards.

Second, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) has not made it clear if it does intend to use the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) to produce plutonium for weapons. In his interview to the Indian Express, which ruffled many political feathers, the AEC chairman A Kakodkar waffles on precisely that question. Much of India’s plutonium stockpile consists of what is called reactor grade plutonium (a by-product at the power reactors), which, though adequate, is not ideal for making nuclear weapons. Weapons makers prefer something called weapons grade plutonium, produced at research reactors and military facilities. The PFBR can be quite effective at converting reactor grade plutonium into the weapons grade variety, a plutonium laundering scheme as it were.

One problem with such an admission, though – it would effectively demolish the canards propagated by nuclear weapons advocates that the arsenal being sought to be built is “minimal”. The kind of arsenal size that would be made possible by keeping the PFBR and, if one were to go by the AEC chairman’s interview, one or more heavy water reactors as well in the military category, cannot be described minimal by any stretch of imagination.

Finally, more than 50 years after plans to build breeder reactors were announced, there is not even a single industrial scale breeder reactor in the country. (For more on why the breeder programme is unwise, see EPW, October 2, 2004.) That being the case, making it out to be the flagship programme of the DAE is questionable strategy.

There could be multiple reasons for the DAE’s reluctance to put the breeder programme under safeguards. One is its desire to produce plutonium for a much larger scale nuclear weapons arsenal. Another is the DAE’s general opposition to any kind of external oversight, especially by international bodies. There are also sections of the nuclear establishment that are opposed to the Indo-US deal and are using the question of safeguarding the breeder programme to wreck the agreement.

In all the posturing on the Indo-US nuclear deal, few among the nuclear science community, the strategic affairs “experts” and the political parties want to see what the tussle is about. There is, on the one side, the US, which wants to control the size of the Indian nuclear weapons programme, and the Indian strategic affairs community and foreign ministry, which together hope to take India even close to the US. On the other side, there are the Indian opponents of the deal who wish to maintain the “freedom” to assemble as large a nuclear arsenal as possible. Clearly a principled Indian position must not take either side. However, the Indian Left, which has been quick to rally behind the DAE, does not realise that it is in effect supporting this freedom to assemble a huge arsenal. The basic premise must be that India should abjure the nuclear option. That, unfortunately, is no major actor’s position. However, it is one that all citizens must hope for.

EPW

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

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