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So, what?s the big Deal?

India has to diligently watch the fine print in the IAEA safeguards to prevent unacceptable procedural details, writes R Rajaraman.

india Updated: Nov 21, 2006 03:04 IST

Last week the US Senate finally passed Bill S 3709, the legislation enabling the Indo-US nuclear deal. Hopefully, the two versions of the Bill passed by the House and the Senate will be amalgamated in ‘conference’ in December, and passed before the newly-elected Congress takes over next year.

Of course, many more steps remain to be taken before nuclear cooperation can become a working reality. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has to be persuaded to lift its own version of sanctions against India — a non-trivial task since that group acts not by voting but by consensus. A single dissident can torpedo the consensus. In the meantime, India-specific safeguarding procedures have to be negotiated with the IAEA, and the so-called 123 Agreement — the actual treaty document between India and the US — has to be finalised.

India has to continue to diligently watch the fine print in the IAEA safeguards as well as the 123 Agreement to prevent unacceptable procedural details. But important as those details are, the public should not get the impression that some serious hazards still lurk in the innards of the Indo-US agreement. Apart from its larger geopolitical implications strengthening India’s place in the international order, the deal is good for India even within the nuclear context.

The Deal vs No Deal

Even those who generally support the agreement may not be happy with all its specifics. But there is no point in comparing it with some alternative hypothetical agreement whose provisions you or I might prefer. Instead, now that its major planks have been fixed, the relevant comparison should be between having this deal and not having a deal at all. Then the nuclear deal wins hands down.

Without the deal, India would continue to remain isolated on the nuclear front, with no access to nuclear fuel or technology from abroad. That our nuclear technologists have developed our reactor programme despite these sanctions is to their credit. But this does not imply that we are better off with that handicap.

Take the issue of the uranium shortage. Just the existing and under-construction reactors will need about 650 tonnes of uranium per year, well over the current production of about 300 tonnes. Even if the new mines being envisaged begin operation in a few years, they may yield another 200 tonnes, which will still leave us short. In the longer term, the shortage is more serious and unambiguous. There has been brave talk of expanding our nuclear energy capacity up to 20 to 30 GWe within a couple of decades to feed our energy-hungry economy. That is going to call for 3,000 to 4,500 tonnes of natural uranium every year. Our total uranium reserves are estimated at about 70,000 tonnes. Even if all of it could be mined out, it can sustain 30 GWe of power for only 16 years. Therefore, there is no question that we do need the uranium imports that the deal will provide.

True, our breeder programme for converting our vast thorium reserves into Uranium-233 may eventually come to the rescue. But commercially significant amounts of U-233 from this programme are at least two decades away. International experience with breeders has not been encouraging. France’s Super-phoenix and Japan’s Monju have had serious problems. Here again, the availability of outside expertise because of the deal can only help, notwithstanding the indigenous breeder expertise we may have developed.

Will the deal survive testing?

Two major concerns expressed about the deal are worth addressing. One is the fear that after having come into action, the deal may break down in five or 10 years due to some developments unpalatable to either India or the US. This could conceivably happen if India were to conduct another nuclear test in the future, or if the US were to make unacceptable demands on India’s foreign policy. On this question, it should be noted that the final Senate Bill has no such conditions, either about India conducting nuclear tests or about its cooperation on matters like Iran. Attempts to insert such conditions were voted out. Nevertheless, if India does test again, especially if that is not preceded by tests by other nuclear nations, it may well bring retributions in the form of reintroduction of sanctions by the US or by other NSG countries.

But even if that possibility remains, it is no argument for rejecting the deal now. If the deal breaks down in the future, we would be no worse off than we are now anyway.  Besides, during the years that the deal does last, we can import and accumulate uranium reserves. We can also enter into contracts for importing reactors and technology. As with the Kodangulam reactor collaboration with the Russians, contracts signed before sanctions are imposed can continue to hold even afterwards. Therefore, even a short lived, broken deal is better than no deal. We only need to be careful before entering into any major project while the deal is on, to anticipate its financial and technical requirements and make alternate provisions for them should sanctions get re-imposed.

And our strategic capabilities?

The other, often expressed concern that the deal cripples or caps our strategic capability has little merit. First, the deal does not prevent us from building, if need be, more plutonium-producing reactors inside the military sector. Second, existing facilities inside the military fence can already produce more plutonium than what is needed for our stated policy of minimal nuclear deterrence. The fast breeder reactor, to be left unsafeguarded, will, by itself, produce about 25 warheads worth of weapons grade plutonium each year. This is in addition to the five weapons worth produced by the Dhruva reactor.

Is this capacity to make 30 weapons a year, year after year, not enough, especially when that comes on top of the nearly 100 weapons worth that we have already accumulated? In fact, complaints that the deal cripples our weapons programme actually endanger our national security by generating misconceptions and unwarranted fears about our nuclear belligerence.

Finally, non-proliferationists from around the world must recognise that in the absence of the Indo-US agreement, all indigenous nuclear facilities in India would be outside safeguards, whereas now, eight such reactors fall under safeguards. Although Indians have done a good job on their own of preventing proliferation, IAEA safeguarding techniques can only strengthen physical safety and enhance international confidence.

The concern that the deal undercuts the spirit of the NPT is valid, but only in principle. In practice, the deal is unlikely to substantially influence horizontal proliferation. If more countries go nuclear in the future, it will be because of their own capabilities and security compulsions. The activities of North Korea and Iran were initiated long before the Indo-US deal.

All said and done, the Indo-US deal is a very good development. The people who worked hard to bring it to the present stage are entitled to their moment of quiet satisfaction, before they go back to worrying about the remaining steps that need to be completed.


R Rajaraman is Emeritus
Professor of Theoretical Physics, School of Physical Sciences,
Jawaharlal Nehru University,
New Delhi