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The nuclear deal: not as easy as 1-2-3

Why are we closely tracking the India visit of Nicholas Burns? What does it mean for us? What’s the big deal? Nilova Roy Chaudhury explains.

india Updated: Jun 03, 2007 02:50 IST
Nilova Roy Chaudhury

The next time you have a power cut, think why its happened and you might stumble upon the answer. As India grows, it needs more and more power to fuel households, public spaces and industries. Every Indian today consumes energy that is just over a fifth of the world average and about a fourteenth of that used by each citizen of the 30 industrialised nations making up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. India’s supply is woefully short of its demand, and the demand itself would rise manifold in the coming years.

That’s why US undersecretary Nicholas Burns’s visit and its pre-occupation with the 123 Agreement matter.

Not all the energy needed can come from non-renewable sources like thermal power, which now accounts for more than 70 per cent of the supply. Damming rivers and water resources —which gets us roughly a fourth of our current supply — can cause deadly changes to the environment. Hence the option of renewable sources and nuclear power, which now accounts for a mere 3 per cent of the supply, cannot be ignored. The idea is to have close to 10 per cent of the supply from nuclear power in a decade or so.

So energy security is the driving force behind the 123 Agreement (named after the clause in the US Atomic Energy Act), the India-specific waivers from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and cooperation with the Nuclear Suppliers Group that would have to be negotiated.

For almost four decades — more than three of them under international sanctions — India’s atomic energy programme has not delivered on its civilian potential. This is one serious push to ensure that it comes close.

The gains

What does India gain if the India-US civil nuclear deal comes through?

1. It would be a major foreign policy coup. India would be the only country to have its nuclear weapons, not sign the Non-proliferation Treaty, and gain access to the nuclear fuel and technology from the nuclear ‘haves’.

2. It gets India out of the technological sanctions imposed by the international community after it first tested nuclear weapons in May 1974.

3. The deal will open India’s civilian nuclear sector to international cooperation, so that India can have the choice to buy the most efficient reactors, fuel and technology.

4. The end of sanctions would give greater access to ‘dual use’ nuclear technologies for medicine, weather forecasting, research and defence.

5. The deal would help reduce India’s dependence on fossil fuels, a great deal of which comes from abroad.

6. It would go some way in addressing India’s chronic energy shortages. The proven capability of several foreign players and NSG members to set up nuclear reactors would allow time-bound delivery of projects.

The pains

There are many pitfalls to this cooperation too.

1. Whether we like it or not, there will be foreign inspectors and much greater international scrutiny on India’s nuclear programme, exposing the sectoral strengths and weaknesses that have not been open to public scrutiny yet.

2. It will open up the nuclear scientific establishment to foreign competition, something many of our scientists are not happy about.

3. India’s risks were much lower when its nuclear programme was hermetically sealed. This deal will increase India’s vulnerability to international censure. There will, for instance, be a difference in the quality of sanctions imposed in 1998 and, say, in 2020 if India tests a weapon.

4. Many believe the deal will increase vulnerabilities in Indian foreign policy — say, on Iran or Myanmar.

5. The deal will bind India into components of an international nuclear order, such as the Wassenaar, the Australia group etc., that it has long resisted.

6. India’s technology export controls will have to be much stronger. So far, the Union government was the only player. Now they will have to allow private parties, making the need for controls much stricter.

You tell us, do the benefits outweigh the costs?