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Atom-tomming lies

When facts are obscured, the rationalisation can be disingenuous. The Indo-US nuclear deal is a classic example. A range of Indian actions, from the vote against Iran to the conspicuous silence on America?s raising to 77 the number of F-16s it is selling Pakistan, have been justified on grounds that India has a lot at stake in this deal.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2006 15:31 IST

When facts are obscured, the rationalisation can be disingenuous. The Indo-US nuclear deal is a classic example. A range of Indian actions, from the vote against Iran to the conspicuous silence on America’s raising to 77 the number of F-16s it is selling Pakistan, have been justified on grounds that India has a lot at stake in this deal.

Yet, those presenting the deal in a larger-than-life dimension have shied away from discussing its would-be benefits or the unilateral obligations it imposes, taking refuge instead in tangential issues. Let us assume the rosiest scenario and examine the benefits that could accrue. We begin with what the deal won’t do.

* India will not become a nuclear-club member. As long as the NPT regime survives, only the five nations that tested a nuclear device before 1967 will lawfully remain nuclear-weapons States. With or without this deal, India will stay in a third aberrant category — neither a formal nuclear power nor a non-nuclear nation, but a non-NPT State possessing nuclear arms.

The deal will only freeze India’s status in this anomalous category, even as New Delhi accepts NPT norms and extends full support from outside to a crisis-torn regime that won’t accept it as an equal or legitimate nuclear power. Yet, with the zeal of a new convert, India has joined the fray to beat up Iran on alleged NPT violation, even before any violation has been proven.

* India will still face a wide array of technology controls. The most onerous technology sanctions India has endured for long are not in the nuclear realm but centre on advanced technologies essential to rapid economic modernisation. The nuclear deal does not address the core technology controls.

To throw open for export to India many hi-tech items currently barred, George Bush need not go to the US Congress, as he has to for the nuclear deal’s implementation. All Bush needs to do is to liberally interpret existing laws and apply to India the standard applicable to another non-NPT nation, Israel. Washington, however, prefers to work only on the margins. Periodically, after extracting something from India, it announces the removal of a couple or more Indian companies from its blacklist, labelled the Entity List.

That conveys an impression to the Indian public that the US is gradually relaxing its controls. But in reality, taking an entity out of the blacklist does not make it eligible to purchase US hi-tech items. Such an entity can only apply for a US licence to buy a particular product, if it meets the rigorous conditions. The US has used entities for the very purpose for which it blacklisted over 200 — as bargaining chips in negotiations.

The nuclear deal may never come into force, with an embattled Bush loathe to propose legal amendments to the Congress or present a plan of action even to the US-led Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) meeting next week. Additionally, NSG members as disparate as China, Sweden, South Africa and Austria have signalled their opposition. In the best-case scenario, only two benefits will ensue if the deal is implemented.

* India will be able to import natural uranium. That will help overcome the projected shortfall in reserves of natural uranium to fuel the new indigenous power reactors coming on line in the years ahead. But why should any shortfall be met by imports with strings attached, and not by mining the new uranium ore deposits found in Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya?

The definitive way out from a uranium crunch is to accelerate the shift to fast-breeder technology, which will make India self-reliant by employing plutonium (recycled from spent fuel) and thorium (available in abundance). India has just started work on its first commercial 500-megawatt breeder reactor. The US goal, however, is to slow down and scupper India’s breeder programme, by insisting that it be brought under outside inspections and by questioning New Delhi’s need to pursue breeder technology when the US could arrange uranium supply.

Energy security cannot be built on imported fuel. Japan, despite its access to the global uranium market, is moving towards recycled fuel. Its draft plan encourages a switch to ‘pluthermal’ generation through mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. India has been running the ageing, US-built Tarapur station with a fuel blend of 30 per cent MOX and 70 per cent imported low-enriched uranium.India is likely to procure more imported fuel for Tarapur, with or without US support, as it has done ever since the US broke its legally binding contract.

* India will be able to import light-water reactors (LWRs) to generate electricity. The deal has spurred such bloated hopes that it has been touted as a panacea to India’s energy needs. Few have asked whether electricity generated by imported reactors dependent on imported fuel will be commercially viable. Imported LWRs are a path to an energy muddle, with their economics making no sense.

The $2.6-billion import of two reactors at Koodankulam was clinched at a time when the Russian nuclear power industry was desperate to stay afloat, with the Indian contract part of a larger strategic give-and-take. Does the government now want the Indian taxpayers to help revive the decrepit US nuclear power industry, which has not received a single plant order in more than a quarter-century? Calculated at the price at which the US offered reactor sales to China last year, the electricity generated in India by imported US reactors would be so expensive as to make Dabhol look reasonable.

Even with tens of billions of dollars worth of imported reactors, nuclear power will not make a real difference to India’s energy needs. Coal will remain the dominant fuel in India, China and the US.

Now compare the supposed benefits for India with what is in the deal for the US.

n A valuable instrument to influence Indian foreign policy. The first half of 2005 went by with the US playing to India’s yearning for a Security Council permanent seat. Ego-massaging statements helped lead New Delhi up the garden path. The second half is seeing a replay of the first, but with the nuclear deal substituting for the council-seat vision. The US is likely to play out this deal as long as it can, because it profitably panders to India’s craving for status and helps buy Indian silence on widening US support to Pakistan.

* A way to gain control over India’s nuclear plans. This primary US objective has been underpinned with the deal, making India answerable to the US through unique, one-sided obligations. Having failed so far to prise open India’s broad-based nuclear programme, the US has at last succeeded in swaying a foreign-policy greenhorn, the bureaucrat-turned-PM, to bring all civil nuclear sites under international oversight. The deal arms the US with leverage that it is seeking to employ to limit the size of India’s nuclear deterrent, control its breeder programme and bring Indian facilities under outside inspections.

Little noticed is the way the prime minister’s deal-related assertions in Parliament have been contradicted by sundry US officials, and how disinformation is emerging as a weapon to mould perceptions. Media plants, for instance, presented trifling steps by Britain and Canada as the lifting by each of its nuclear embargo against India.

The nuclear deal promises to tie up Indian foreign policy in knots. The best way India can contain the damage is to shun any irreversible step while it watches the beleaguered Bush’s ability to deliver on his part of the bargain. If a faltering Bush or congressional resistance helps kill the deal, India will stand mercifully freed from its epic blunder.

First Published: Oct 11, 2005 00:05 IST