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Convincing them is the key

The Nuclear Suppliers Group countries meeting in Vienna today don’t care about India-US relations or our past nuclear record. They just want to know why India can be a good nuclear partner, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Aug 20, 2008 23:15 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Nothing, not even mushroom clouds, gets nuclear non-proliferation zealots into a frenzy more than talk of spreading enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technology. This acronym may prove to be the single biggest hurdle to India ending its nuclear isolation when the Nuclear Suppliers Group meets in Vienna today.

The reason is that both technologies pave the way to atom bomb-building. Enrich uranium above a certain point and it’s warhead-ready. Reprocessing lets you strain glow-in-the-dark waste for fissile material. “Non-proliferation experts worry about reprocessing because it allows for the separation of pure plutonium from spent fuel rods,” says physicist R. Rajaraman. “In principle, it can be used directly to make weapons.” Thou Shalt Not Spread ENR Tech is the 11th commandment of arms control.

The fact that the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal leaves the door slightly ajar for India to access ENR equipment has made the New Zealand-to-Norway anti-nuclear axis so noisy in the run-up to Vienna. Their other demands include penalties for nuclear testing and a periodic review to see whether India isn’t N-cheating on the sly.

How enrichment and reprocessing has been seen in the eyes of various countries is a parable on how the Indo-US nuclear deal is understood by different players. For India, getting access to ENR was both a right and a requirement. ‘Full civil nuclear cooperation’ with the US had to include some ENR stuff, though the US doesn’t share this even with close allies. Section 104 of the Hyde Act allows India to get some ENR equipment and material under certain conditions. US proliferation expert Sharon Squassoni complained that the deal made India “a legitimate reprocessing State”.

But there was substance behind the ENR symbolism. India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) began pressing the US for ENR access once it concluded the nuclear deal was not some underhand American plot. They realised that if the deal went through, India could massively increase its civilian nuclear power programme. However, indigenous ENR technology is primitive — okay for the standard desi 220 MW pygmies, but not for the 1000-plus MW reactors that could be imported. India would need to scale up enrichment to feed so many reactors. It also needs reprocessing to handle waste. Storing nuclear waste is expensive and dangerous, reprocessing makes nuclear energy drastically cheaper. “The viability of commercial nuclear power in India depends on the quality of ENR technology,” said an Indian official.

India’s motives for getting access to ENR are clear. What is less known is why the Bush administration was willing to open the ENR door, an act that made selling the deal to the US Congress, and now to the NSG, ten times more difficult. A key US motive was to build a strategic nuclear partnership with India, revolving around India’s fast breeder reactor.

Washington wanted to shape a new nuclear order in which the highest caste would be reserved for countries with large supplies of fissile material. Breeders, which produce more fuel than they consume, are the only guarantee of such stocks. The problem: after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, US officials told their Indian counterparts that the US had put in place a regulatory structure that makes it impossible to build its own breeder.

So the US urged India to consider, as one consequence of the nuclear deal, a bilateral partnership in breeder technology. The US would contribute its own breeder knowhow, expertise in thorium fuel fabrication and, of course, its superior ENR. But this was too much, too fast, for a wary DAE that said ‘later perhaps’. Nuclear expert Anupam Srivastava of the University of Georgia says India was too cautious. “Right now India can live with ENR equipment. If its nuclear programme matures, in ten years it will want ENR technology,” he says.

The US left a loophole on ENR sales in the Hyde Act in the hope that India might one day revisit the idea. Section 104 Part 4 allows the transfer and export of ENR “equipment, components or materials” to India in case of “a bilateral or multinational program to develop a proliferation-resistant fuel cycle”.

Even now, many in New Delhi treat the breeder idea as a pie in the sky. “It is doubtful that DAE will ever trust the Americans enough to share a breeder with the US,” said an Indian official. DAE officials have only said they will wait until after the nuclear deal is done. One incentive: firing up the DAE’s pet breeder will be easier if they have better ENR. “The DAE’s declared future for breeder reactors in India is in metallic fuels,” says Manohar Thyagaraj of the US India Business Alliance, “in which case [advanced] reprocessing becomes essential.”

So India saw the ENR issue as a cost-cutting technology. The US saw it as a means to rework the global nuclear hierarchy. Neither of these cut ice with the New Zealand-to-Norway axis. For them, these are purely national concerns that do not outweigh the punching of holes in a 40-year-old non-proliferation agreement.

Unsurprisingly, the countries that are determined to place tight conditions on any NSG exemption for India are small, rich and live in areas where a security threat is a high school food fight. The more a country is imbued with a sense of geopolitics, the more likely it is to accept that India needs a niche in the nuclear order. The Bush administration, ultimately, was prepared to make concessions to India because it saw an empowered India as being in the US interest. An Indian official who interacted with European governments on the deal said, “Europeans just saw us as a large-sized Iran.”

The NSG guidelines will have to include some moralising language to keep the anti-nuclear axis happy. India will have to start the Vienna proceedings explaining why no one will regret bringing India out of the atomic cold; and why it is better to have India inside, rather than outside the non-proliferation tent. One US diplomat said, “There are going to be all these countries sitting in a room in Vienna. They won’t care about Indo-US relations or climate change or India’s past nuclear record. They will want to hear the political case for the claim that India is a good nuclear partner.”