Indo-US Nuclear Deal

THE Nuclear deal entered into by India and the US as part of the Indo-US Agreement signed by president Bush and Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh during the latter’s recent visit to the US has been received differently by diverse quarters in India and abroad.
Under the deal, India has undertaken to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities, place the former under full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, take various measures to prevent export of nuclear-weapons technology, contribute to other international non-proliferation regimes, as well as to continue with its declared moratorium on nuclear tests. In other words, India would comply with all obligations of Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) which are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that India has consistently held to be discriminatory and has thus never joined.

On its part, the US Administration has agreed steer appropriate provisions through the US legislature enabling supply of fuel to Tarapur (built with US assistance in the ’60s and already under IAEA safeguards, but with fuel supplies and other technological assistance cut off due to US sanctions imposed in the wake of India’s first nuclear test Pokhran-I in 1974) and other nuclear power plants and transfer of other nuclear energy technology by the US to India, as well as to push for similar measures in the 44-country Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and related actions by the IAEA. In the Agreement, the US has agreed to recognise India as a “leading country with advanced nuclear technology”, thus granting it a de facto NWS status.

Some sections in both India and the US have hailed it as a major breakthrough in Indo-US relations, perhaps even the biggest ever shift in bilateral ties with the US virtually admitting India into the nuclear-weapons club and opening the doors to the lifting of all restrictions on India acquiring civilian nuclear technology and fuel apart from other dual-use technologies. In India, several media commentators, former nuclear-establishment scientists and “strategic experts”, and leading lights of the BJP, have attacked the deal as a betrayal of Indian security interests, a surrender of its sovereignty in nuclear matters and a blow to its independent nuclear capability. Both these extreme assessments are not merely exaggerations but also fundamentally erroneous.

On the other hand, a few divergent voices, including and especially that of the CPI(M) have, while being been sharply critical of the overall Indo-US Agreement, the threats to India’s independent foreign policy and the implicit acceptance by India of US hegemony in world affairs, have viewed the nuclear deal itself in a different light.  There are indeed many important issues that the general discourse has not brought out with regard to India’s strategic vision, its nuclear policy both civilian and military, its energy security as well as the near-term geo-political scenario and the role of the US in it.


M/S Vajpayee, Brajesh Mishra and Jaswant Singh, and many strategic experts and commentators, have sharply criticised the nuclear deal for seriously compromising Indian security and its sovereign decision-making regarding the size of its nuclear “deterrent” (read arsenal). They argue that separating India’s military nuclear facilities from its civilian power plants and placing the latter under IAEA safeguards will limit the quantity of fissile material made available to the former, effectively capping India’s nuclear arsenal and making its more costly since dedicated military-nuclear facilities would have to be set up.

Let us first dispose of the issue of costs. If a limited number of nuclear warheads are envisaged, then the costs should not go up substantially since existing “research” reactors and some additional facilities can readily be separated and placed in the military category. And if costs do go up somewhat, so be it: if you want nukes, pay for them, rather than having the civilian power sector subsidising them! The Indian people would benefit by at last knowing what the military nuclear option really costs, no longer being concealed under civilian cover, and can then participate in more informed decision-making regarding it. Despite this, total defence outlays may actually come down since a more limited number of warheads would also obviate the extravagant and hugely expansive “triad” of air, sea and land-based nuclear delivery systems the BJP-led government had envisaged.

The underlying assumption of this critique is clearly that Indian security lies foremost in nuclear weaponisation and its unfettered expansion. This militarist strategic perception has consistently been opposed by the Left and the broader Peace and Disarmament Movement, a position vindicated by Pakistan’s tit-for-tat overt nuclear weaponisation and its Kargil adventure despite the mutual “deterrence”.  Peace-loving forces in India have long held that Indian security is not dependent on nuclear weapons, and have demanded first a cap and then a roll-back of the nuclearisation of India and the South Asian region.

From such a perspective, a self-imposed limiting of India’s nuclear arsenal is welcome and would go at least some way towards meeting the demand of regional and universal nuclear disarmament. The critique of the Indo-US nuclear deal by the BJP and like-minded commentators should therefore be rejected outright and sharply contested for being founded on wrong militarist premises.

In fact, the real regret is that the Agreement contains no mention of universal nuclear disarmament, a goal enshrined in the very NPT by which the NWS club swears but does everything to prevent. None of the various speeches made by the prime minister in the US even mentioned the Rajiv Gandhi Plan, the last major initiative by India towards this goal. In its eagerness to please the US, if the Congress-led UPA could not even remember its own slain leader, it is scarcely surprising that it has totally ignored the commitment made in the Common Minimum Programme to make efforts towards this goal which the Left and the peace movement in India take very seriously indeed.


In practical terms, the deal is expected to assist India in its quest for nuclear fuel towards its stated goal of 20,000 MWe of nuclear power in the next decade compared to the present about 4,000 MWe, a target India has set keeping in mind its projected energy requirements and the cost and environmental limitations of conventional energy options based on oil, gas, coal and hydro power. India has limited sources of natural uranium and it will take considerable time to develop thorium-based technology. Given the restrictions on supply of nuclear materials by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, sourcing of heavy water from Russia, the mainstay of most nuclear power plants in India, has also become highly problematic. Countries such as Russia and France are also eager to assist in setting up nuclear power plants in India. Reports have suggested that US-based companies such as Westinghouse are also keen to export to India.

Under the Agreement, with India separating its nuclear power facilities from any military linkage, and placing them under IAEA safeguards, all these could become possible. If the US keeps its word and is actually able to persuade the NSG to relax its existing stringent conditionalities vis-à-vis India, the deal would substantially benefit India and contribute to its energy security.

The current military security-obsessed discourse has also ignored other possible gains from the separation of the civilian energy sector from the clandestine military side.  The veil of secrecy provided to the nuclear energy sector by its military dimension and its special “holy cow” status has had serious consequences for safety. All international experience shows that the greater the openness, access to information and public involvement in nuclear energy matters, the better the safety record of nuclear power plants and other facilities. An opportunity now opens up to leverage the civilian-military separation to open up Indian nuclear energy to wider public scrutiny, redefine the role and functions of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and expand the monitoring of the nuclear energy industry by Parliament. Besides enhancing public safety and minimizing environmental impact, optimisation of nuclear energy efficiency and costs would also be enhanced due to the removal of subsidies from the strategic side.

For all this, it must be underlined that in terms of India’s overall energy security, fossil fuels especially oil and gas will continue to be the major factor contributing over half of India’s projected energy needs compared to not more than 10 per cent for nuclear power. Compromising the former in the interests of the latter makes no sense and India’s ambivalence about the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline under obvious US pressure is therefore shocking.

With West Asia in some turmoil but with its oil still under dominance of US companies, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US is now determinedly and swiftly seeking domination over oil and gas resources in Central Asia and the Caspian region where the “great game” is now being played out. US and European companies are rapidly putting in place infrastructure to pump oil and gas across Europe by land or by sea via the Mediterranean, thus seeking to monopolise these resources and simultaneously marginalise a weakened Russia which was hitherto Europe’s major supplier. The only possible counterpoise to this imperialist strategy is efforts by China and India which not only have enormous domestic demand but can also further supply these resources to energy-hungry markets in the Asian region and beyond. For India, the Iran pipeline project is crucial in this regard since it can also be cross-linked with Central Asia and China, and with ports in India and Pakistan. It is therefore vital that maximum popular pressure is put on the UPA government to stoutly resist US diktats and vigorously pursue the Iran-Pak-India pipeline project.


Fears have been expressed in India that the nuclear deal will actually not bring any benefits in terms of nuclear technology. US nuclear plants are based on boiling water reactors (BWR) whereas almost all India’s plants are based on pressurised heavy water (PHWR). However, US companies can supply enriched uranium besides BWR-based power-plants, plant components and special materials required for them. The real benefits of the deal may also lie not only in US-India nuclear technology transfers but also in obtaining other dual-use technologies and in similar ties with other advanced countries. The deal also opens up the possibility of India joining in the International Thermo-nuclear Energy Project (ITER) which aims at harnessing fusion energy (like in the sun and hydrogen bombs as against fission as in current power plants and Hiroshima-type “atom bombs”) with enormous potential for clean and virtual limitless energy production.

Fears about the difficulties, even “impossibility” according to some commentators, of separating civilian from military facilities and about the impact of safeguards on the indigenous Fast Breeder Reactor Technology are exaggerated since, after all, the nuclear establishment in India on both sides of the fence appear to be fully on board and problems would likely to have been factored in.

The question needs to be asked whether India really benefits from keeping herself in possibly permanent isolation from international technological development for the sake of illusory benefits from an unbounded military programme inextricable tangled up with its civilian energy sector. The weight of evidence suggests the answer is no.


In response to fears expressed in India that whereas India has made “commitments”, the US has only made “promises”, prime minister Manmohan Singh and other official spokesmen have been at pains to underline that the Agreement stresses that these measures are to be implemented by India only in a “reciprocal” manner.  The real question, is there the necessary political will to do so?

One may scrutinise the text of the Agreement and argue about turns of phrase and their implications but in actuality its impact will truly be assessed only by its implementation, by the US and more so by India.

It has not been adequately recognised in the debate so far as to how much of a U-turn has actually been taken by the US. The Administration will have to really exert itself in the US Congress, with NSG allies and with the IAEA to fulfill its side of the bargain. None of this is going to be easy. The powerful lobby of non-proliferation fundamentalists in the US has already attacked the Agreement, as have several commentators in Europe who have accused the Bush Administration of virtually dismantling the international non-proliferation architecture at one stroke by granting de facto NWS status to India and thus opening up a can of worms.

It is important to ask why the US has done so. The answer must lie in the US assessment of its long-term geo-political interests in which it wants India to play an increasing but junior partner role. This is evidenced by the web of strategic agreements the US has been sucking India into: defence partnership, democracy initiative, disaster management tie-ups and so on. The nuclear deal is but part of an overall pattern of entrapment of India within US imperialist designs. Make no mistake, the US will strive to keep India on a short leash and deliver minimum while extracting the maximum.

In is therefore imperative that in the months to come, India should strictly implement the reciprocity stressed in the nuclear deal and carefully calibrate its own actions only in response to measures actually taken by the US, the NSG and the IAEA. The CPI(M), the Left as a whole and the peace movement should demand strict adherence to this principle of reciprocity and ensure that the government does not undertake unilateral measures which may compromise national interests and sovereignty.

It is also important to sharply demarcate this position from that of the BJP and other militarist, right-wing forces who are raising the bogey of “Indian security under threat”. Indian security is not limited to its nuclear capability nor should it be left hostage to forces who claim to be its sole guardians