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Pleasures of separation

The formal outline of the nuclear separation plan presented before Parliament seems to have been designed to keep virtually everyone happy.

india Updated: Mar 09, 2006 03:26 IST
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The formal outline of the nuclear separation plan presented before Parliament seems to have been designed to keep virtually everyone happy. New Delhi has retained the ability to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal to the levels that bankrupted the Soviet Union. But it has also increased the amount of nuclear power capacity under international safeguards from 19 per cent to 65 per cent. It has kept the breeder reactors off the civilian list to pacify the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). Finally, it has decided to decommission the tiny Cirus reactor, in part to appease the Western non-proliferation lobby. The plan has more or less brought to a close a heated and, at times, hopelessly technical national debate about the merits of separating India’s nuclear programme into civilian and military wings.

A separation plan designed to please all will not be without pitfalls. A fierce political battle will be waged first in Washington and then within the Nuclear Suppliers Group over whether India has done enough to deserve a de facto nuclear power status. The obscure reasoning for keeping the breeders in the military list, for example, will provide ammunition to a range of opponents, from non-proliferation hawks to Pakistan. It is hard not to feel that Manmohan Singh has passed on an unfair amount of the political workload to George W. Bush’s shoulder.

But the plan tabled in Parliament does help in bringing back the focus of India’s nuclear power debate to the issue of simple electricity. India’s economic future is inextricably linked to its ability to produce power. For a number of reasons including climate change, nuclear energy is the most viable power alternative for a rising India. The DAE has been a success when it comes to making weapons, but its record in producing electricity is abysmal. It needs both global finance and technology to correct this deficit. The separation plan, as Mr Singh correctly argued, is the first step towards making India’s nuclear power sector a genuine contributor to the national economy.