Reshaping the U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal to Lessen the Nonproliferation Losses

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For decades, India's nuclear programs have been defined by two contradictory forces: the country's vast ambitions and its limited uranium reserves. Its ambitions have led New Delhi to establish a significant civilian nuclear enterprise, to refuse to sign the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and to develop and test nuclear weapons. Its limited uranium reserves, on the other hand, have clearly slowed India's nuclear energy development, most likely hampered its nuclear weapons program, and intertwined the two efforts to a high degree.

The tension between India's goals and resources has grown much stronger in the past decade. By bringing India's nuclear weapons programs into the open, the country's 1998 nuclear tests fueled calls to develop the full panoply of nuclear capabilities, including a nuclear triad. India's recent impressive economic growth has strained the country's energy system, increasing interest in nuclear energy. In particular, India would like to quintuple the production of electricity through nuclear energy by 2020.

To the Indian government, the civil nuclear cooperation agreement it signed with the United States last year looks like a way for New Delhi to escape this dilemma, giving it access to global uranium reserves without imposing limits on its nuclear weapons program. India's right and left wings may claim the Congress-led government has somehow shortchanged their country. The truth is that, without the deal, New Delhi will be forced to confront painful trade-offs between its energy and national security goals, as a series of January interviews I conducted in India of nuclear scientists, policy experts, and energy and defense analysts made clear.

For the deal to go forward, the 45 members of the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) must first agree to carve out an exception for India to its guidelines. These currently require a non-nuclear-weapon state, as India is legally defined under the NPT, to have comprehensive safeguards on all nuclear facilities before receiving civilian nuclear assistance from NSG countries.

The U.S. Congress too must sign off on the final nuclear cooperation agreement, meaning that it and the NSG will retain considerable leverage over India. They should use this power to condition the agreement in a way that does less damage to the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

The NSG has an opportunity to condition this exception on India's behaviors, including continuing to refrain from testing nuclear explosives and placing permanent safeguards on any foreign technologies and fuel, as well as designated indigenous facilities. Moreover, the NSG should hold back on transferring enrichment and reprocessing technologies, which could further enhance India's weapons production capabilities, and only supply as much reserve fuel as needed for reasonable power plant requirements. U.S. leadership could also influence India to become a more responsible nuclear-armed state through signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and committing to a cutoff of weapons-usable fissile material in addition to adhering to conditions on civilian nuclear commerce.

Two Intertwined Visions

The roots of the current controversy over the nuclear deal go back to India's emergence as an independent nation in the late 1940s. At that time, Dr. Homi Bhabha, widely viewed as a father of India's nuclear programs, sought to develop these efforts in a way that exploited indigenous resources. He was well aware that India's uranium resources were only sufficient to power a modest nuclear energy program of about 10,000 megawatts per year and even less would be available if some were used for weapons. To compensate, Bhabha laid out a three-stage plan for India to hoard these limited indigenous uranium deposits and to leverage its abundant thorium deposits to bootstrap itself to a massive production of electricity through nuclear energy and to produce weapons-grade plutonium (see page 17). …