India’s N-deal with US
Tuesday, 29 July 2008

By Tariq Osman Hyder

THE US-India agreement for cooperation in civil nuclear energy is the high-water mark of the US-India strategic partnership.

Only a few isolated voices in the international arms control community, particularly in America and India, have voiced concerns. George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment perceptively noted inter alia two US objectives: that a more powerful India would balance China’s growing power and influence in Asia, and that changing national and international laws on nuclear cooperation would also help bolster India’s strategic capabilities, including nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, which will further balance China’s strategic power.

India would get access to nuclear fuel, technology and reactors for its ambitious nuclear power development programme which was already facing problems due to limited uranium reserves. The chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Agency, Anil Kakodkar, stated on July 4 that India’s long-term energy security faces a huge gap if India is unable to import nuclear reactors or nuclear fuel under international cooperation. Alternatively it would be required to import 1.6bn tonnes of coal in the year 2050 alone.

The opportunity was missed to introduce a criteria-based non-discriminatory system which would have brought both India and Pakistan fully into the global non-proliferation regime and given both fossil-fuel deficit countries access to civil nuclear energy under IAEA safeguards, while encouraging strategic restraint in South Asia and furthering global non-proliferation objectives. India should have been asked to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. While India has pledged to work towards a fissile material cut-off treaty, the agreement enhances rather than restrains its fissile production capabilities.

Of India’s 22 power reactors, six of which are already safeguarded, only an additional eight will be placed under safeguards, not immediately but progressively up to 2014. If run for that purpose, the eight un-safeguarded reactors can comfortably produce 1,400 kg of weapons-grade plutonium a year, which is sufficient for around 280 nuclear weapons. As all safeguarded reactors would have access to imported fuel there is no economic rationale for excluding these reactors.

Even when run for power generation alone, the un-safeguarded reactors would provide reactor-grade plutonium, in lesser quantities, which could be used for nuclear weapons and for India’s ambitious breeder reactor programme which has also been kept outside safeguards. The first Indian breeder reactor would be able to produce 135 kg of weapons-grade plutonium every year. Four larger breeders are planned which eventually could produce some 500-800 kg of weapons-grade plutonium a year. In comparison, the annual production of India’s existing military reactors is estimated at 33 kg.The Indian separation plan presented to its parliament on May 11, 2006 states that India would include in the civilian list of facilities under safeguards only those determined not to be relevant to its strategic programme. Hence the agreement, while fulfilling India’s energy requirements, frees its limited 60,000 tons of uranium reserves for its strategic programme and objectives, an outcome lauded by India’s leading strategist K. Subrahmanyam. The US justification that the agreement is placing additional Indian reactors under safeguards amounts to scraping the bottom of the non-proliferation barrel.

India is moving fast towards a nuclear submarine-based second-strike capability, as well as an ICBM capability which will require plutonium for missile warheads. Bharat Karnad, professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, is of the opinion that India’s new ‘cold start’ doctrine will give it the ability to wage limited war against Pakistan, secure in the fact that its growing strategic capabilities will neutralise Pakistan’s deterrence. The fact is that strategic stability is under threat and an unnecessary arms race may result.

While the agreement is between the United States and India, a draft umbrella safeguards agreement between the IAEA and India will be examined, as per requirements, by the IAEA’s board of governors at the end of July. It remains to be seen how far it will accord with global non-proliferation objectives. This also holds true for subsequent discussion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Now is the time for the board of governors and then the NSG to use their leverage to get it right. If the board of governors succumbs to pressure, as is likely, even more responsibility devolves on the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which was set up to prevent or at least restrict proliferation. If it is to retain any credibility, the group must do the right thing.

The IAEA has different models of safeguards agreements. Almost all are based on facility-specific agreements, which apply safeguards in perpetuity and extend safeguards on the material produced. There are no conditionalities. The five permanent members of the Security Council have voluntary offer agreements, placing certain facilities under safeguards, which they can withdraw at any time for reasons of national security.

The draft India-IAEA agreement is a hybrid of the two models. India retains the right to take unspecified corrective measures to ensure uninterrupted operation of its civilian nuclear reactors in the event of a disruption in foreign fuel supplies. A high-level Indian team briefing the board members in Vienna recently was unable to clarify what this meant. The agreement would also subsume existing and stricter safeguards agreements on Indian reactors. Moreover, the accord with the US has been brought into the preamble of the draft India-IAEA agreement. Since military nuclear facilities and programmes are mentioned in the former, it is clear that India seeks legitimisation to further its military programme.

India’s concurrence to safeguards is dependent on continuous access to fuel supplies as well as a strategic reserve of fuel over the lifetime of India’s reactors. There is no mention of moving towards an additional protocol with the IAEA, which is another requirement of the agreement with the United States. No list of facilities has been listed, although the separation plan is a public document. There is no safeguard against the transfer or replication of imported nuclear technology to the benefit of the military. In effect the draft agreement is a blank cheque. It should be brought in line with the unconditional permanent safeguards model, with no room for interpretive ambiguity.

The objective of the international community should be to link support for India’s legitimate energy needs with extending safeguards to all its power generation and breeder reactors, leaving a limited military capacity, and to use it as a model for other non-NPT states. To do otherwise would be a grave disservice to non-proliferation objectives, and to regional and international peace and security.

The writer, a former diplomat, headed Pakistan delegations in nuclear CBMs talks with India from 2004 to 2007.

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