Bottomline | Such a Long Journey

As details of the Indo-US nuclear deal appear, so does the devil

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

What is one to make of the repeated statement by the US ambassador in New Delhi, David C. Mulford, that the hoped Nuclear Supplier Group’s waiver will be ‘clean’ and not ‘unconditional’. We heard this for the first time after the Manmohan Singh government won the trust vote on the nuclear deal in Parliament on July 22 at great cost; the biggest being that the opposition parties will exploit it to the hilt during the coming general elections if the deal fails ratification by the present US Congress. It can be argued that the US envoy did not desire to say this before he was certain that New Delhi, after dumping the Left parties, was indeed serious about talks with the NSG. It is also being said that the US’ strategy is to move the goalposts one issue at a time so as not to overwhelm New Delhi into exasperated rejection. I believe the latter to be the truth. The whole issue, after all, is extremely complicated as it concerns finding common grounds within the strategic interests of two unequal partners; one determined to remain the foremost world leader, and the other unsure of a regional role. The matter really is not whether India gets accepted as an equal partner by the NSG member countries that work on consensus. The matter is what cost the US will extract by making India a junior partner in its scheme of things for Asia and the world. For three full years starting the signing of the 18 July 2005 agreement, Washington has worked passionately on India through the White House, State Department and the Pentagon with the stated twin purpose of non-proliferation, and to achieve military interoperability through sales of arms, military exercises and regular visits. The unstated purpose has been to bring India into its embrace so as to influence its foreign policy and national security choices.

Reports suggest that while there are as many as 50 amendments proposed by the member countries to the US-India drafted NSG waiver text, the sticking points are three: a nuclear testing penalty clause, need for periodic review of India’s compliance, and complete ban on transfer of enrichment and reprocessing (E&R) technologies. Let us see what these three issues really mean. The nuclear testing penalty is really a back-door Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which once agreed will lead to greater pressure on India for fissile material cut-off before the treaty is even agreed upon. The so-called periodic review implies stringent Additional Protocol by the IAEA to monitor India’s safeguarded facilities. The IAEA employs three safeguard methods: material accountancy, containment, and surveillance, by making use of four procedures, namely, design review, maintenance of plant operating records, reports on plant operations, and on-site inspections. To undertake the above, two types of inspections are undertaken, routine and special. It is clear that if the NSG members succeed in the periodic review of Indian facilities, in addition to the routine and special inspections, the IAEA will be allowed ad-hoc inspections as well. The third sticking point of ban on E&R technologies has ramifications that go beyond the Indian safeguarded nuclear reactors.

By the E&R technologies, the uranium fuel that will be imported along with the nuclear reactors can be utilised fully and better, as otherwise India will be left with loads of unutilised spent fuel. The enrichment technology uses the nuclear fuel fully, and the main objective of reprocessing is to separate uranium and plutonium from fuel which has been irradiated in a reactor. If the burn-up time in a nuclear reactor is kept low, weapon-grade plutonium is obtained, and by high burn-up time, reactor-grade plutonium is procured. The reactor-grade plutonium thus got can be used in breeder reactors as well. Thus, without the E&R technologies, the imported fuel will not be used fully.

The worry of the NSG members is that even if India is unable to procure weapon-grade plutonium and uranium by controlling the burn-up time of imported E&R technologies, there would be enough internal proliferation. This means that Indian scientists working on E&R technologies at safeguarded facilities will carry the knowledge to the unsafeguarded Indian nuclear reactor facilities to enhance indigenous fissile material production. The other issue connected with allowing export of E&R technologies to India would suggest fewer controls over selling of high and dual use technologies to India. The NSG will certainly not desire that India has access to technologies like formal nuclear weapon states. And this is what Mulfold meant by ‘clean’ and not ‘unconditional’ exception. After all, in the 123 agreement also, the export of reprocessing technologies is to be discussed and formalised after the agreement is reached between India and the US. And last but not the least China has yet not disclosed its cards on the NSG exception for India. It has maintained that global non-proliferation requirement should be respected, which if one goes by the NPT definition, there are only two categories of states, nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states. Beijing will definitely not be a cake-walk.

Considering that New Delhi has come this far, any strings by the NSG will be unacceptable domestically. What the US would now work upon is to do its best to see India get an acceptable waiver from the NSG. The strings will be worked out in the larger strategic arena away from media glare.


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