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A fruitless venture

It is foolish to abandon the India-US nuclear deal because we ‘ought’ to get a better one, writes R Rajaraman.

india Updated: May 01, 2007 01:46 IST

A perception has grown in recent weeks that the India-US deal is in some trouble. Behind the diplomatically-worded statements by both sides on the progress of the talks, one can clearly read frustration due to delays in negotiating the so-called 123 agreement. But there is no reason yet for supporters of the deal to give up heart or for its opponents to start celebrating its demise.

In fact, the points of disagreement over which the negotiations now appear to be stalled, although important at some level, are relatively minor compared to what has already been successfully agreed upon. They are even less compelling if placed against the larger strategic and geopolitical implications of India-US cooperation if it fructifies, or on the negative side, if it fails at this stage.

The contentious points are related to (i) India’s freedom to conduct nuclear tests in the future, (ii) reprocessing of spent fuel and (iii) the availability of adequate fuel supply for future reactors. Are these serious enough for either side to jeopardise the deal by insisting on having its way? Let us examine them one by one.

In substantive terms, the issue of testing is really the least serious of the items under negotiation. That may sound strange. Isn’t India’s freedom to conduct nuclear tests an important matter? Indeed it is. But what is being grossly exaggerated by critics of the deal is the relevance of the 123 agreement to this freedom.

It should be stressed that the 123 agreement cannot prevent India from testing. It can only threaten to render the India-US nuclear cooperation null and void. As a sovereign country, India can always conduct further tests if it chooses to do so after carefully weighing its strategic requirements against its nuclear energy requirements. But at the same time, it has been known all along that if India were to conduct another nuclear test, all nuclear cooperation would have to be suspended by the US. This is regardless of what is or is not mentioned in the 123 agreement. The relevant portions of the US Atomic Energy Act demanding such sanctions exist separately from, and irrespective of, the Hyde Act passed last year.

The only point of contention is whether a clause to this effect should be explicitly mentioned in the bilateral 123 agreement or not. India would prefer to leave its moratorium on testing as a unilateral one, rather than be bound by a bilateral treaty. This is largely a legal and diplomatic distinction and it would unwise for either side to insist on having its way on this point at the cost of jeopardising the whole deal.

The issue of reprocessing spent fuel is a more serious matter and the Department of Atomic Energy’s concerns in that regard are understandable. A situation where we can neither reprocess spent imported fuel nor give it back to the original suppliers is clearly undesirable. We would then be stuck with storing tonnes of radioactive spent fuel, as is happening in Tarapur.

But here too, we must focus only on the actual constraints that the Americans want to write into the 123 document and not extrapolate beyond them to fret over imaginary contingencies. Unfortunately, while news reports keep mentioning reprocessing as the thorniest issue holding up the agreement, they continue to be vague about some critical details on what exactly the US position is. If the US demands are only that (i) they will not supply us with reprocessing technology, and (ii) they will not allow us to reprocess the fuels supplied by them for the reactors we buy from them, then this is a problem we can live with, worse come to worst. True, the Americans do exempt some other countries from these restrictions and up to a point, it made sense for us to keep pressing that we be treated on par with those countries. But beyond a point, it is not worth abandoning the deal for that reason.

Remember that if the deal gets completed and accepted by the US Congress and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), then in all likelihood, the first batch of reactors we buy will not be from the US, but from Russia or Areva, the French nuclear giant. Both these nations are poised to enter into reactor trade with us and preliminary negotiations are already over. There are indications that the Russians may be willing to sell us both reactors and their fuel without such strings attached. In that case, the India-US deal, a bilateral treaty, cannot prevent us from building our own reprocessors and reprocessing spent fuel from a third country, say, Russia. Alternatively, the Russians may agree to take back their spent fuel, so that we are not stuck with it.

Of course, the NSG may pass strictures against our reprocessing any imported fuel. But if we agree to reprocess under IAEA supervision and transparently show that the reprocessed plutonium will be used only for civilian energy and not weapons, it would be churlish of the NSG to deny us that. In fact, some reports say that India has already offered a similar proposal to the US, viz., it will reprocess spent US fuel only under IAEA supervision. If so, that is a wise move on our part and one hopes the US will accept it.

In any case, even if the US will not allow reprocessing of the fuel it supplies, or if it offers to supply fuel only in bits and pieces, we can worry about that problem when we decide to buy an American reactor. Such an approach by the US would only leave their reactor manufacturers at a commercial disadvantage.

In short, to abandon this agreement at this stage because we ‘ought’ to get an even better deal from the US would be foolish. That is not the option available. The correct framework within which people must decide on the deal is to compare what we will get from it as compared to where we will be left without it.

Without the deal, we would continue to be under sanctions, not only from the US but from all NSG countries. Both Russia and France, two countries favourably disposed to giving us nuclear technology, have repeatedly stated that they will do so only if the India-US deal and the NSG endorsement go through. Nor will our uranium shortage problem go away just by wishful thinking or going into a denial mode.

This larger perspective should not be forgotten in the zeal to squeeze out maximum gains at these final stages of negotiations. Our officials have already worked hard over the last 18 months to negotiate a very good deal from the Indian point of view. If a sub-section of stubborn elements on either the Indian or the US side of the negotiating table is further delaying the 123 agreement and endangering the whole deal, it is vital that they be reined in by the political leadership. The tail must not be allowed to wag the dog. Statesmanlike compromises are of the essence at this stage.

R Rajaraman is Emeritus Professor of Physics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi