Nuclear Deal Struck

AFTER much supposedly nail-biting tension “going down to the wire”, the nuclear deal between India and the US was finally clinched during the visit of president George W Bush to India. During the build-up to the visit, numerous comments and leaks from both sides spoke of irreconcilable positions and differences hanging in the air, all suggesting that the deal was improbable. However, the arrival of US point man Nicholas Burns in Delhi a week before, and hectic consultations thereafter, indicated that the deal was in fact being sewn up and was only awaiting the summit between prime minister Manmohan Singh and president Bush where a “dramatic breakthrough” could be announced testifying to the skill and determination of the principals.

Both the US and India were keen on finalising the agreement on Civil Nuclear Energy Co-operation, a clever designation for a deal that kept running up against a wall because of its military aspects. This US presidential visit to India provided a perhaps one-time opportunity to cement the deal: the Bush presidency will enter its lame-duck phase shortly and the next US administration may not be as willing to go against earlier non-proliferation shibboleths.

That the nuclear deal is part of a broader strategic relationship is self-evident, made manifest in the many wide-ranging agreements signed during the Bush visit following on from the defence and strategic partnership agreements entered into last June-July 2005 during visits by the Indian defence minister and prime minister to the US. Yet the contours of the deal have their own significance. For India, the gains could be substantial: end of isolation in nuclear science and technology, end to a sanctions regime affecting many high-tech industries. The fear was that in its eagerness to get out of this no mans land India would give away too much.

A vigorous campaign waged by the Left, sections of the scientific community and the nuclear establishment, other experts and media commentators, and supported by public opinion concerned at possible threats to Indian sovereignty and self-reliance, has prevented this from happening. This has not received the attention it deserves for it demonstrates that US imperialist designs can be challenged.

The prime minister’s statement in parliament on March 7, 2006 and the detailed documents tabled in the House reveal that this is a deal India can live with. However, many hurdles are yet to be crossed, not least passage of appropriate legislation by the US Congress, and the pressures sure to come on India to bend this way and that.

DEAL CONTOURS           

At the heart of the deal is the plan to effect a separation between civilian and military facilities, and placing the former under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Whereas the BJP and some right-wing commentators have been railing against the very idea on grounds that it will be complex, expensive and curtail India’s weapons programme, the detailed separation plan made public by the prime minister meets the requirements of a reasonable and transparent framework while retaining the fundamentals of India’s independent nuclear energy capability, its research programmes and its “credible nuclear deterrent”.

Central to the separation plan are some principles crucial for Indian sovereignty, self-reliance and energy security. The plan offers to separate and place under safeguards specific facilities selected by India and in a phased manner, two conditions crucial to India not only to guarantee sovereign decision-making but also because the military and civilian aspects of the Indian nuclear programme are so intertwined that a surgical separation is simply impossible.

In much of the public debate, the plan is described as separating “civilian” from “military” facilities, whereas more accurately it is a separation of facilities which will have purely civilian applications being placed under safeguards from those that will not.  In the latter, the plan keeps out of safeguards not only facilities with a military significance but also those integral to India’s self-reliance in the nuclear fuel cycle and R&D towards its quest for long-term nuclear energy security through Breeder reactors and finally the thorium cycle.

In doing so, the separation plan has clearly moved away from the capitulationist positions of sections of the foreign policy establishment and strategic community who poured scorn on the scientific community and the Left for standing in the way of a great opportunity to strike a grand bargain with the US by pushing to keep Breeders out of safeguards and insisting on measures that would ensure Indian self-reliance and sovereign decision-making. Foreign secretary Shyam Saran even publicly declared at a seminar that “it makes no sense to keep some civilian facilities… out of safeguards.”


The plan offers to place under safeguards 14 out of the present 22 reactors, amounting to about two-thirds of current nuclear power generation as against two-fifths at present. (Incidentally, while a piqued BJP has been shrill in its criticism of the deal, insiders know that the NDA government too had offered 14/22 to the US in 2002!) All future commercial power reactors will also be placed under international safeguards which, as Indian interlocutors have been pointing out, will substantially and continuously raise this percentage which is already being tom-tommed by the US interlocutors as a great achievement. Out of these 14, six (two each at Tarapur, Rawatbhatta and Koodankulam built with US, Canadian and Russian assistance) are already under safeguards. Another Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) will be designated by India and placed under safeguards by 2014. Three heavy water production plants are being placed under safeguards and five kept out to meet the requirement of reactors in the respective sectors.

Two strategically significant complexes at Trombay and Kalpakkam, from both the military and research standpoints, have been kept out of safeguards. Even purely research or other facilities in these complexes not having any military dimensions will also be kept out of safeguards to protect these installations from intrusive inspections. Some uranium enrichment and other fuel-cycle related facilities in these complexes and at other locations such as Rattehalli and the Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad, will also be kept out of safeguards. The tiny Apsara reactor located inside the Trombay complex will be relocated. This broad strategy of isolating certain complexes will likely guide selection of the reactors to be placed under safeguards.

Nine Research Institutions connected in one way or another with the nuclear programme have also been put in the civilian list so as to pave the way for increased international scientific collaboration.


After much heated arguments with the US, the two Breeder reactors have been kept out of safeguards. This is essential not so much because of any military importance they may have but mainly to protect India’s advanced research capabilities in this technology from intrusive international inspections that may not only erode India’s technological edge by exposing its indigenously developed know-how but also impede its research programme.

To allay apprehensions that weapons-grade plutonium coming out of nuclear power reactors and used and further produced by Breeders will keep accumulating, the plan offers that once the present R&D phase is over, all future commercial-scale Breeder reactors will be placed under safeguards. At the same time, the reactors kept out of safeguards are adequate to ensure supply of plutonium for charging of the Breeder reactors and for use in the weapons programme, as also tritium for the latter.

The major concession made by India has been to accept that the separation of the civilian facilities will be “in perpetuity”, another bone of contention between the two sides. Recognised Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) are permitted to switch facilities between civilian and military sectors but the plan chooses to overlook the prestige angle and instead focus on energy security. But on the plus side, the plan ties the “in perpetuity” provision to uninterrupted supplies of nuclear fuel, builds-in US and international guarantees and efforts to ensure this and even provides for India to stockpile nuclear fuel under safeguards against such an eventuality. The spent-fuel storage pools in Tarapur and Rawatbhatta are already under safeguards and more such safeguarded storage is likely to be created subsequently.

Another concession by India is the decision to close down by 2010 the Cirus research reactor closely associated with India’s strategic programme even though it has been refurbished as late as 2003. Cirus has been a sore point with the US and especially with Canada which had supplied materials for setting it up on condition it would not be used for military purposes whereas India claims it did so because Canada terminated supplies. While India still has the Dhruva reactor, an up-scaled version of Cirus, it may require additional capacity for strategic purposes. The plan allows India to create such additional un-safeguarded strategic facilities as it deems necessary.


The IAEA and major countries such as Russia, France and Britain have welcomed this agreement, and it is quite likely that the Nuclear Supplies Group, or at least key countries, will go along as hinted at by the visiting Australian prime minister this week. Yet there are many hurdles to cross, not the least being approval by the US Congress in the face of rapidly declining popularity of the Bush presidency which is beginning to encounter challenges on several issues for the first time inside the legislature. But these uncertainties apart, there are some issues within the terms of the deal itself and around it that need to be flagged for caution. The Left, other anti-imperialist forces and those standing for India’s self-reliance and sovereignty need to be vigilant on this count and keep up the pressure on the government.

A crucial aspect of the deal is reciprocity of measures to be taken by India and by the US, IAEA, NSG etc. The UPA government must ensure that it strictly follows this principle and does not take any steps until the US fulfils its part of the bargain.

India-specific safeguards need to be negotiated carefully with the IAEA. The need for special provisions for India arises both from the fact that India is not a signatory to the NPT and because of the complexities of the separation plan. This will be quite tricky and will provide ample room for mischief and coercive conditionalities through the back door especially by the US, seeking to curb India’s independent nuclear technology capability.

The separation plan leaves many details to be worked out later, some of it to allow more time for considered decision-making. But this wiggle room can cut both ways, and also leaves scope for the US to make additional demands. The UPA government must resist all attempts to extract further concessions from India and US pressure on the specious grounds of the need to satisfy the US Congress.

The US is also clearly out to substantially alter the international non-proliferation architecture. Finding the NPT inadequate to maintain its strategic and technological nuclear monopoly, the US now wants to engineer a system that would deny all non-NWS countries rights over the nuclear fuel cycle. Recent efforts to coerce Iran into accepting off-shore re-processing and supply of nuclear fuel are part of this game plan. As late as a week before his departure for India, Bush announced the launch of a new “Global Nuclear Energy Partnership” through which advanced countries such as the US, Britain and France would supply fuel to “developing” countries with nuclear power plants and surprisingly included India in this list clearly going against the Indo-US Agreement of July 2005. While the deal and the separation plan announced by prime minister Manmohan Singh appears to contradict this, there has been no official withdrawal by the US of president Bush’s remarks and one should assume the worst that the US will continue to mount pressure on India to accept a junior role in a US-led international nuclear system.

The deal is being touted by prime minister Manmohan Singh as a crucial aspect of India’s long-term energy security. Nuclear energy is only one part of India’s and the world’s energy scenario and one should not be carried away by it. Talk of import of nuclear reactors and technologies is being glibly bandied about but it is essential that the techno-economics and strategic significance of such transactions and options are carefully evaluated.


There is also a need to go beyond the specifics of the Indo-US deal and protecting Indian sovereignty and self-reliance within it.

There is a real danger of India now settling comfortably into a de facto NWS status and an international non-proliferation architecture that permits it. This will only mean acquiescence with an iniquitous nuclear apartheid system in which India is granted “honorary white” status. India has stayed out of the NPT because it is discriminatory and this character of the NPT will not change merely because India is let in from the cold. Nor should it let all NWSs, de facto or de jure off the hook from the NPT commitment to total universal nuclear disarmament.

Left and peace-loving forces should relentlessly keep up the pressure on the government on both these issues. Their demand still remains that India should take all steps necessary, both global and regional, to facilitate freezing and then rolling back of nuclear weaponisation. It will be in the fitness of things if, once the deal is formalised after approval by the US Congress and the NSG, the UPA government takes steps to convene an international conference in implementation of the New Delhi Declaration and reiterates its commitment to the long-cherished goal of universal nuclear disarmament.