"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
U.S. Puts Onus on India for Nuclear Ties

Wade Boese

U.S. government officials are putting the onus on India to advance a bilateral initiative to expand global civil nuclear trade with New Delhi.

Specifically, the officials say that India must take the first step in separating its nuclear infrastructure into civilian and military spheres to prevent future nuclear trade from aiding New Delhi’s nuclear weapons program. Until then, Bush administration officials have said they will not make any specific proposals to modify any U.S. law or international restriction to enable India to import more nuclear materials or technologies. President George W. Bush promised such changes to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh July 18. (See ACT, September 2005.)

In 1974, India improperly used nuclear technologies imported for “peaceful purposes” to explode a nuclear device, prompting the United States and other nuclear suppliers to curtail their nuclear dealings with India significantly. Still, New Delhi defied international pressure, continued to build a nuclear arsenal, and conducted a series of nuclear tests in May 1998. India is one of three countries never to have signed the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

To guard against further Indian abuse of civil nuclear trade, India’s separation “must be both credible and transparent,” Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Nov. 2. He added that the plan “must ensure…that cooperation does not in any way assist in the development or production of nuclear weapons.”

Joseph detailed some ways this could be done. He suggested India should designate as many of its facilities as possible as civilian and subject them to international safeguards “in perpetuity.” Safeguards are measures designed to deter and detect the diversion of nuclear materials and technologies for civil purposes to nuclear bomb-making. “Nuclear materials in the civil sector simply must remain in the civil sector,” Joseph declared.

This prescription conflicts with earlier Indian expectations that New Delhi would retain the flexibility to reassign facilities from one sector to another. A July 29 Indian government press release stated that the United States has “the right to shift facilities from the civilian category to military and there is no reason why this should not apply to India.”

New Delhi has repeatedly maintained it wants to be treated the same as the United States and the other four recognized nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. All five of these states have voluntary safeguards agreements, which Joseph ruled out as an acceptable option for India.

The issue has stirred protest in India. Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has led a chorus of criticism that separation would be too difficult and costly and impinge too much on India’s nuclear weapons program. Yet, Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran told a New Delhi audience in late October that “it makes no sense for India to deliberately keep some of its civilian facilities out of its declaration for safeguards purposes if it is really interested in obtaining international cooperation on as wide a scale as possible.”

Although assessing the separation process as “complex” and “time-consuming” at the Nov. 2 hearing, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns also described it as “arguably the most important of [ India’s] obligations.” He noted New Delhi had yet to formulate a separation plan and predicted its implementation might not start before April.

Indeed, negotiations between Burns and his Indian counterparts have yet to yield an implementation schedule. Burns has invited Saran to Washington, D.C., in December and will travel to New Delhi in January for further talks.

Bush administration officials previously suggested that the deal would move at a faster pace in an effort to show tangible progress before Bush visits India early next year. A day after the July 18 agreement, Burns asserted, “I know that, over the next month or two, and especially when Congress comes back from the summer recess, we will want to put in front of the Congress a specific program.”

But such a plan has not been delivered, and lawmakers have indicated they will be in no rush to act once it is received. House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) cautioned Oct. 26 against “needless haste,” while the panel’s ranking minority member, Tom Lantos ( Calif.), echoed the same day, “[T]here is no hurry.”

Hyde also warned the administration against taking congressional approval for granted. “I am troubled by a number of public statements by administration officials that congressional support for the overall agreement is broad and that our consent is virtually guaranteed.” Several days earlier, Burns had asserted that “substantial support” existed for the agreement in Congress.

Similarly, top senators have yet to embrace the deal. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) labeled India’s nuclear record Nov. 2 as “unsatisfying.” Contradicting repeated administration statements about India’s stellar nonproliferation credentials, Lugar cited a case last year in which Indian scientists were sanctioned for “providing nuclear information to Iran.” The panel’s top Democrat, Joseph Biden ( Del.), described the proposed cooperation as a “gamble” and “not a slam dunk.”

Despite the deal’s lukewarm reception by several lawmakers, Joseph urged them not to try and remedy any perceived shortcomings on India’s behalf. Specifically, he advised them against conditioning their approval of the deal on obtaining additional Indian commitments to cease production of fissile material—plutonium or highly enriched uranium—for building nuclear weapons, sign the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or renounce nuclear weapons and join the NPT. Such demands would be “deal breakers,” Joseph said.