Proliferation Press

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Archive for May 1st, 2007

What Ever Happened? The U.S.-India Nuclear Deal

Posted by K.E. White on May 1, 2007

Why the delay on the U.S.-Indian Nuclear deal? helps unpack the two sticking points: US demands for India to a) stop all nuclear testing and b) not reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

(Some background:

1) The U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954 that prohibits the United States from trading nuclear materials that foster other nation’s nuclear weapon capabilities.

2) India’s rich supplies of thorium)

Now for the article:

A testing ban simply will not fly in Indian defense circles. India’s last major military standoff with nuclear rival Pakistan was only about five years ago, so New Delhi feels it cannot agree to become legally bound by a moratorium on nuclear testing while it faces a very real threat across its border. The issue could be resolved, however, by inserting language similar to that included in the withdrawal clauses of several other disarmament treaties such as the NPT. Such a clause allows the party in question to withdraw from the agreement when “extraordinary events … have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.”

The reprocessing issue is a bit more complex. At its current pace, India does not have enough uranium reserves to support both its civilian and military nuclear programs in the long run. With the U.S. nuclear deal, India can preserve its domestic source of uranium for its unsupervised military program, and use imported uranium for its supervised civilian reactors, allowing the Indian nuclear defense program to leap ahead (and keep Pakistani leaders up at night).

However, India also owns more than 30 percent of the world’s thorium reserves, compared to just 0.7 percent of uranium reserves. It makes good economic sense — and is one of India’s long-term goals — to pursue a nuclear program that fully utilizes the country’s abundant thorium reserves, rather than become increasingly dependent on foreign suppliers for its nuclear fuel.

At the risk of getting too technical: uranium-fueled reactors will operate with thorium in the reactor chamber, so that while the Indians are potentially generating “traditional” nuclear power, they are also irradiating thorium, which will turn it into U-233. That U-233 can then be extracted, via reprocessing, and used to create a new type of nuclear fuel for a different reactor. This would allow India to take advantage of its wealth of thorium for power production.

The problem (from the U.S. perspective) is that U-233 also can be used in nuclear weapons programs — and the idea of indirectly supporting India’s nuclear defense program is not something that U.S. President George W. Bush will be able to sell to Congress, even though, with Iraq in shambles, his administration is extremely keen on claiming a foreign policy success.

The Economist Newspaper gives this take on the motivations from New Delhi and the White House:

For India, however, the devil in the 123 agreement is not just in the technical detail. Above all, Mr Singh is under strong pressure from his nuclear establishment, and from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which supervised India’s most recent bomb tests in 1998, not to agree to anything that would curtail India’s right to test again, should it so choose. But the Hyde Act is clear: if India tests, the deal is off.

India would still be free to test, of course, and damn the consequences. But it is these—from increased pressure not to test in the first place to accusations that India had trashed the deal—that it wants to avoid. And the Hyde Act rules out ruses such as getting others to supply India with nuclear fuel if America backs out, or helping it build up large enough fuel stocks to test with at least nuclear impunity. Crafting words that satisfy India’s wish to keep all its nuclear options open, and yet could squeak past Congress, is hard.

For although India has not signed the NPT, America has; it is not supposed to assist others’ weapons building in any way. To India’s frustration, the Hyde Act therefore also rules out selling India (or bending NSG rules far enough to allow others to sell) equipment and technology for three processes used in making nuclear fuel that are also crucial for producing the fissile material for bombs: uranium enrichment, plutonium reprocessing of spent fuel and the production of heavy water (used as a moderator in reactors fuelled by natural uranium that can be ideal for producing bomb-useable plutonium). Nor is India to be allowed to reprocess American-origin spent nuclear fuel to extract its plutonium.

Might India test again? How many more bombs does it want? If the deal goes through, the foreign fuel it can import will anyway take the pressure off its own tight uranium stocks, enabling more of these to be used in its military programme. It has also exempted its plutonium-producing fast-breeder reactor from safeguards.

In the discussions that followed its 1998 tests, India indicated to America that its need for plutonium was not open-ended, and that it would not seek nuclear parity with China. Since then, says Robert Einhorn, who took part in those talks and is now at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, India seems to have changed its strategic goals; its insistence on the option for large-scale plutonium production suggests a revised view of where it thinks it should be in the global pecking order, he says.

Privately, some Bush administration officials would not be unhappy if India’s growing nuclear arsenal gave China more pause. As the momentum behind the deal slows, the going gets tougher.

So it this deal going to happen?

Nonproliferation Advocates are ready to fight, as IAEA ElBaradei knows all to well himself.

But the real bargaining will come in the US Congress—where the 123 Agreement must be approved—and the Nuclear Suppliers Group reaches consensus on the deal.

And this assumes Indian support for the plan stays robust.


Posted in 123 Agreement, America, Bush administration, India, Nuclear Deal, proliferation, thorium, U.S. India Nuclear Deal | 5 Comments »