Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

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.


5 Responses to “What Ever Happened? The U.S.-India Nuclear Deal”

  1. Neel said

    The US India nuke deal, heralded in 2005 as one of Civil nuclear cooperation between India and the US, after two years, in its current form is one of containment of a nuclear power, that is outside the ambit of NPT, CTBT and FMCT.
    The terms of the deal clearly suggests that India may obtain heatherto prohibited nuke power tech. in exchange of its soverign rights to nuke testing, reprocessing of spent fuel and to pursue the Thorium route, and ofcourse hundreds of billions in initial investment.
    The non proliferation lobby would love to see an India, perperually dependent on technology and fuel supply and subjected to perpetual threat of withdrawal of all cooperation.
    While people in India consider the above terms humiliating and not worth the papers these are written on, the non proliferation lobby thinks India is being ” GREEDY ” , and should be happy with what is offerd to it.
    It would be interesting to see how the whole episode of so called friendship and cooperation is taken to a logical conclusion !!!


  2. SPM said

    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.

    Atcually this statement is 100% wrong. The U-233 produced by thorium reactors cannot be used for nuclear weapons because it is contamilated by small quantities of U232 which is very difficult to separate and makes the U233 proliferation resistant.

    U232 has a half life of 75 years and it’s decay products emit strongly gamma ray radiation. The gamma radiation emitted by the U232 in U233 produced by Thorium makes reprocessing the rods without remote controlled processing facilities lethal, and re-processing the rods to extract the U233/U232 from the thorium is very difficult due the the fact that thorium oxide is one of the most stable oxides with one of the highest vapourisation temperatures of any oxide, making it necessary to have a large and complex reprocessing facility which is difficult to hide, and making attempted theft and attempted use of the material for a dirty bomb by terrorists suicidal – giving a lethal dose within hours.

    Even when reprocessed to seperate out the U233, it is unsuitable for use in nuclear weapons – The U232 which is a by-product is difficult to separate out, and even 10ppm of U232 renders the separated U233 unsuitable for nuclear weapons use. The gamma radiation is harge enough to fry electronic detonation and missile guidance systems, and tt is impractical to shield the radiation without making the missile it too heavy to fly.

    The large gamma radiation signature is difficult to shield and makes the presense of U233 weapons or materials easy to detect from a distance, which again makes it unsuitable for use for nuclear weapons. It also makes it very difficult to hide or smuggle without detection.

    It is not the U232, but it’s decay product that emits the strong gamma radiation. If someone reprocessed the U233 to remove the U232 decay products in a remote processing facility, it would be possible to remove the gamma radioactivity. However as U232 continues to decay, new decay products are formed, and the gamma radiation returns within a week or so. It is not practical to manufacture and arm and deploy nuclear warheads for such a short time before they have to be returned for reprocessing again.

    Any way you look at it, Thorium is a non-proliferation dream.

  3. proliferationpresswm said

    Thank you for the clarification of the cited article.

    But one question relating to the implications of your comments: If India currently has the domestic sources for nuclear fuel, where is the need for a nuclear deal with America?

    If fuel is not needed, is this really more about international prestige, approval of India’s current nuclear weapons, and geo-political alignment?

    And secondly, could an Indian motivation for the nuclear deal reside in the ability to save their current uranium reserves for non-inspected military nuclear sites?

    Again, thank you for the
    clarification and readership of the blog.

  4. SM said

    Thorium is a fertile material not a fissile one, so it requires a fissile material (U233, U235 or Pu239) to generate power. India has intending to produce U235 and breed Pu239 to create the initial fissile material, and breed U233 from thorium fertile material which will consume their U235 and/or Pu239 to produce U233. Once they have enough U233 stockpiled, they will use in in thorium-U233 cycle reactors, which will breed as much U233 as they use up therefore only requiring thorium as an input. The problem is that to build up sufficient U233 to power all the feactors India will need with it’s increasing energy needs will take 30 years. In the meanwhile India has to rely on coal and oil/natural gas, which although cheaper, cause pollution, green house gases and in the case of oil/natural gas causes India to be reliant on countries like Iran and other middle eastern countries. This means India will have to pander to countries like Iran and Arab countries to secure it’s oil until then. That is why both India and the US were so keen that the deal was signed (the US being more keen than India). By importing uranium/plutonium nuclear waste and stockpiled weapons grade plutonium earmarked for disposal and burning it in Indian thorium reactors as the fissile material, the expensive to store waste gets incinerated and made safe, electricity is generated, and U233 is made for use in thorium-U233 reactors. This allows India to start generating a large amount of power now instead of 30 years from now.

  5. GK MAN said

    India dosent need any treaty with US. Government must use thorium in India. It is about 33% of world and more than sufficient. But if US want to give uranium without poking nose into our weapons basket then why should we have a problem. Cant we make electricity by combusting etanol. We must accept what mr Bush propose. It wl be profitable for making more power to feed our cities and industry untill we get a ample power frm Thorium, Etanol and Biodiesel to supplyment Hydroelectricity and Coal.
    There is an urgent need for us to get about 3 time more eletricity for peaking the GDP growth upto 12 or 13 percent which is the most natural growth for indian economy and todays 10 percent is still underperformance.
    As vast rural areas set to seek global standards then we want about thrice of energy we want today. Economist must understand that about 650million population has a share of 30% and about 95% of such men are rural. As our villages want for globalisation like Banglore they would show a great boom to economy and then anything less than 14% growth would be underperformance in case of INDIA. This would be a natural economic process. If it is lagged due to energy scarity then all the social structure of economy would be shatter and there can be another partition on the issue of power.

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