No international issue in India’s post-independence history has evoked as much domestic and international controversy as the India-US Nuclear Deal, concluded on July 18, 2005, between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W Bush. Paradoxically, the heat and controversy generated in our Parliament worked to India’s advantage, as New Delhi was able to secure assurances from Washington, DC, on issues like guarantees of uninterrupted fuel supplies and reprocessing of spent fuel, which would have otherwise not been forthcoming.
Most analysts agree that while the Opposition BJP made valid points and expressed genuine concerns on the impact of the agreement on India’s strategic nuclear programme and its ability to conduct nuclear weapons tests in the future, the arguments put forward by the Communist parties, alleging that the agreement would undermine the pursuit of an independent’ foreign policy, then and even now, remain specious. The opposition of the Communist parties, which led to their withdrawal of support to the previous UPA Government, strengthened the perception that their actions only complemented the opposition being mounted internationally by China, against the termination of international nuclear sanctions on India.
The UPA Government, in turn, failed to cogently explain to the people of India that what was being undertaken was an effort supported strongly by former Russian President Vladimir Putin and former French President Jacques Chirac, to end global nuclear sanctions on India. Even today, few people realise that with global demand for oil set to outstrip supplies, oil prices in the long-term are likely to rise significantly and become increasingly unaffordable. Moreover, with concerns about global warming and environmental pollution rising, India has to look for non-traditional and non-hydrocarbon options to meet its energy needs. With India unable to import uranium ore because of global nuclear sanctions, existing nuclear power plants with a capacity of 4100 MW were generating barely 1500-1600 MW. Following the nuclear deal, imports or uranium from sources ranging from France and Russia to Kazakhstan and Australia are now possible.
Energy security for the country can be enhanced significantly only by stepping up indigenous energy production. This process would be accelerated if we tap the virtually unlimited reserves of thorium within the country. But, utilising thorium reserves is a time consuming and complex process. This process would involve, first running nuclear reactors based on imported uranium ore and then using the reprocessed spent fuel for plutonium-based fast breeder reactors, the first of which is to become operational shortly. With Indian scientists, according to Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar, having “mastered” the use of thorium-based fast breeder technology, the third stage will be the serial production of thorium-based indigenous fast breeder reactors. The crucial advantage of this route is that recycled fuel can produce 60 to 90 times the energy derived from current processes of fuelling reactors exclusively with uranium ore. It is important to remember that if we maintain present rates of economic growth, we would have to import three times the total electrical energy we produce today, by the year 2050, unless we devise alternate, indigenous energy options.
Contrary to the fears expressed when the nuclear deal was signed, India is not moving in a any great hurry to conclude agreements with the United States till its concerns on guarantees of fuel supplies and reprocessing of spent fuel are credibly addressed. What has happened instead is that Russia has taken the lead with agreements to build two more rectors of 1000 MW each in Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, with arrangements in place to build eight such reactors in coming years. Moreover, sites have been identified in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Orissa, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, which can each accommodate nuclear power reactors producing around 12000 MW of electrical power.
But India needs to act quickly on issues like handing over a separation plan of its nuclear facilities to the IAEA and enacting legislation consistent with the provisions of the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for nuclear damage, if it is to cooperate on nuclear power generation with countries like France, Canada and the United States, where nuclear power companies, unlike in Russia, are privately owned.
While there were initially doubts on whether the Obama Administration would abide by the letter and spirit of the 123 Agreement concluded on July 22, 2008, there are indications that it is now working to address issues like reprocessing of spent fuel, which have to be unambiguously clarified, before India can sign any agreement for import of nuclear power plants with American companies, which are now largely Japanese owned and operate out of countries ranging from the UK to South Korea. Despite this, those who believed that the signing of the India-US Nuclear Deal would clear the way for India getting access to dual use high-technology items from the US have yet to be proven right. There is nothing to suggest that there has been any easing of such restrictions since the Obama Administration assumed office. This has to be an item of high priority for discussions when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits India.
Speaking in Washington on March 23, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy Shyam Saran made it clear that while India remained committed to its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, there were serious reservations about the CTBT because the treaty was not “explicitly linked to nuclear disarmament” and the manner in which it was adopted was obviously meant to circumscribe Indian nuclear options. Moreover, he added that while “we cannot be part of a discriminatory regime where only certain states are allowed to possess reprocessing or enrichment facilities”, we would be willing to work with the US to curb nuclear proliferation. Another crucial issue which Mr Saran alluded to was India’s readiness to accede to a Fissile material Cut off Treaty, provided that it was a “multilateral, universally applicable and effectively verifiable” treaty. India has to insist on the treaty being non-discriminatory and internationally verifiable, given China’s readiness to transfer fissile material and nuclear weapons know-how to Pakistan.
Finally, India could take the moral high ground internationally by calling for the outlawing of the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons and for de-alerting nuclear arsenals worldwide. Given the opinion of the World Court, which declared the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons as inadmissible in International Law, such moves by India will enjoy widespread international support.