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Impact of the U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal on India's Fissile Production Capacity

Note for Reporters
July 26, 2006

Contact:
Daryl G. Kimball
, Executive Director, Arms Control Association
202-463-8270 x107 (Office)
202-277-3478 (Mobile)


Today the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on proposed legislation for renewed U.S.-India nuclear cooperation (H.R. 5682).

One of the central issues about the proposal is how the supply of U.S. and other foreign nuclear fuel to safeguarded India nuclear power reactors would allow India to use more of its existing domestic supply of uranium for the purpose of producing fissile material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for nuclear weapons.

Not only would such indirect assistance of India's bomb program run counter to the United States' own nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty commitments, it could foster greater nuclear arms competition with Pakistan and China.

This has led Reps. Howard Berman and Ellen Tauscher to propose an amendment to H.R. 5682 that would require India to join the five recognized nuclear weapon-states in a fissile material production cutoff before the United States provides nuclear fuel to India. It is why Rep. Brad Sherman and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry have introduced separate amendments aimed at ensuring that U.S. nuclear assistance does not indirectly facilitate an increase in India's nuclear bomb material production rate.

Myths

Some proponents of the nuclear deal have countered by claiming that India has large reserves of uranium already and that India's nuclear bomb program is not now constrained by its domestic uranium stockpile. They claim that U.S. and other foreign nuclear fuel supplies would not facilitate increased bomb material production by India and would only help relieve India's shortage of nuclear fuel for nuclear energy production. Not true.

Realities

There is no debate that India has "uranium reserves." The fact is that India has been unable to exploit these reserves to the extent that advocates for the nuclear deal have claimed. As a result, India would be hard pressed to maintain, let alone increase, the rate of production of fissile material for weapons while expanding its nuclear energy output, unless it can significantly expand domestic uranium mining and milling, and/or get access to the international nuclear fuel market.

India currently produces about 300 tons of uranium annually, which is almost two-thirds of what is needed to run its current heavy-water power reactors, support its production of highly enriched uranium for its nuclear submarine program and its current weapons grade plutonium production rate (enough for approx. 6-10 bombs per year). It has had to rely on stocks of previously mined and processed uranium to meet the shortfall. The addition of new reactors in the near future will increase the total demand for uranium beyond projected increases in domestic uranium production.

Simply put, India's production of weapons grade plutonium is currently constrained by the requirements of its nuclear power reactors on its limited domestic supply of natural uranium.

This is why K. Subrahmanyam, the former head of the National Security Advisory Board, wrote that:

  • "Given India's uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our minimum credible nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India's advantage to categorize as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refueled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons grade plutonium production." (K Subrahmanyam, "India and the Nuclear Deal," Times of India, December 12, 2005.)
This is why an Indian official "close to the prime minister" told the British Broadcasting Corporation:
  • "The truth is we were desperate. We have nuclear fuel to last only till the end of 2006. If this agreement had not come through we might have as well closed down our nuclear reactors and by extension our nuclear program". (Sanjeev Srivastava, "Indian P.M. Feels Political Heat," British Broadcasting Corporation, July 26 2005.

Bottom Line

Absent a decision by New Delhi to halt to the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, the proposed U.S.-Indian nuclear trade deal would allow India not only to continue but also to potentially accelerate the buildup of its stockpile of nuclear weapons materials.

There are several scenarios that could allow India to utilize foreign nuclear fuel supplies to help it increase fissile material production for weapons purposes from its current annual rate of 6-10 bombs worth of material to several dozen per year.

For instance, if India builds a new plutonium-production reactor (as it is reportedly planning to do) or decides to use one or more of the eight existing heavy water reactors that would be excluded from IAEA safeguards to augment its two existing military plutonium production reactors (CIRUS and Dhruva), the additional increased consumption of domestic uranium supplies for plutonium production would be compensated for by access to imported uranium for safeguarded power reactors.

And, if India no longer needs to rely on domestic uranium to fuel its power reactors, it could also expand its small-scale centrifuge enrichment program to make highly enriched uranium to support nuclear weapons production.

Congress should consider these realities as it enters the debate on the H.R. 5682 and act accordingly.

For further analysis on this subject, see: "Fissile Materials in South Asia and the Implications of the U.S. India nuclear deal," Draft report for the International Panel on Fissile Materials, July 11, 2006.

For more resources, documents, statements, and the text and reports of the legislation, see the Arms Control Association's web site and ACA's special resource page on the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal.