Journalist | Writer | Analyst
18 July 2005
Nuclear cooperation with U.S.: Experts urge caution
WHEN PRIME Minister Manmohan Singh meets U.S. President George Bush in Washington on July 18, his attempt to push cooperation in the civilian nuclear field will face one big hurdle: Washington’s desire to tighten the already restrictive global regime governing the transfer of nuclear-related material for civilian purposes.
No matter how important a position India has come to occupy in U.S. strategic thinking, Washington will be careful not to do anything that will weaken the non-proliferation initiatives announced by President Bush in February 2003. If anything, the ongoing crisis over North Korea and Iran has increased the salience of these initiatives and reduced the Bush administration’s appetite for making exceptions.
The American embargo on the supply of civilian nuclear equipment to India is linked to both its domestic laws and its membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Part I of whose guidelines prohibit the transfer of nuclear equipment to a country that does not accept comprehensive safeguards by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at all its nuclear facilities.
Though domestic law can be waived and adherence to the NSG guidelines is voluntary, the question of whether or not the Bush administration will reverse itself on the supply of civilian nuclear equipment will depend on its assessment of how this would impact on its wider counter-proliferation initiatives. Making an exception for India — without India granting something in return — would likely make its task of tightening the NPT-plus regime harder.
Among American analysts, Selig Harrison and Ashley Tellis have suggested that the best way for the U.S. to integrate India into the global non-proliferation order as a de facto nuclear weapons state and allow it access to nuclear equipment and fuel is to insist that all existing and future power reactors be safeguarded by the IAEA.
The Indian atomic establishment is, however, wary of safeguards except at any new facility that is created with outside equipment or help.
Pointing to the importance of the indigenous fast-breeder reactor (FBR) programme, A.N. Prasad, former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), told The Hindu the suggestion of allowing safeguards “goes against the national interest.” “Since FBRs will be the mainstay of India’s nuclear power programme for some time, and since there is a lot to be established for the first time and improved upon to achieve a level of maturity required to make it a success, bringing in safeguards at this stage just because they are civil nuclear facilities will seriously hamper our efforts and cut into our freedom to pursue the development of this programme.”
He said that “only those who have hands on experience in operating such facilities and also dealing with intrusive safeguards can fully appreciate this aspect” and warned that the issue “should not be taken lightly.”
Dr. Prasad also said that the suggestion made in some quarters about separating civilian and military facilities for safeguards purposes is not feasible. Given the “small scale of the military activities involved,” dedicating reactors for a single purpose “is not only impractical but also not cost effective.”
In the context of the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington, Dr. Prasad said any change in U.S. policy on the nuclear supplies front should be “carefully assessed to see if there are any unacceptable conditions.” At no point should India “compromise the basic inherent strength so relentlessly built over the years under heavy odds.”
Dr. Prasad’s concerns were echoed by other serving and retired Department of Atomic Energy officials who said India needed U.S. support for its nuclear energy sector only to supplement planned capacity and facilitate the supply of fuel, particularly natural uranium. The DAE establishment insists the FBR must be the mainstay of the Indian nuclear power programme and that any light water reactors that Russia, France or the U.S. might supply will be an “additionality.”
There is scepticism about the outcome of the Prime Minister’s visit on the nuclear front. Joining issue with Ashley Tellis’ recommendations that the easiest thing for the Bush administration to do is to invite India to join ongoing research programmes for next generation prototype reactors, a senior DAE official said that India needed fuel and equipment today.
Experimental projects like fusion energy (ITER) or the Radkowsky Thorium Fuel programme may yield dividends three or four decades from now. “In any case, when Radkowsky came here, it was clear that we are quite ahead on that front,” the official said. “As for ITER, the Europeans have already invited us to join and they are very keen. An American endorsement is not a big deal.”
A. Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, is not convinced India should be looking at the U.S. for light water reactors even as an “additionality.” “We are deep into our three-stage programme and you cannot just turn it off,” he said. “The nuclear power sector is not like `aviyal’ where you can mix all kinds of reactors. Inter-transferability of engineers is an issue. Besides, to run the LWRs safely, we will need to have our hands held for a long time. Can we rely on the Americans to do that?”
The critical issue for India right now, he says, is the shortage of natural uranium for its pressurised heavy water reactors. If the U.S. wants to help, it should facilitate the purchase of uranium, he says. India should also think of approaching Niger and Namibia, two countries with enormous reserves of uranium, which are not members of the NSG.
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