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former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
Nuclear Deal Center Stage for U.S., India

Wade Boese

U.S. and Indian government officials often evoke the similarities between their two countries and the breadth of their blossoming “strategic” relationship. But in the prelude to President George W. Bush’s March trip to India, one issue commanded attention: nuclear trade. It also featured prominently in French President Jacques Chirac’s February visit to India.

Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed July 18 to expand their countries’ ties. Perhaps the most ambitious and arguably most controversial commitment was Bush’s promise to work toward altering U.S. law and international rules in order to permit full-scale civilian nuclear trade with India. India has been largely ex cluded from this arena for three decades since its 1974 explosion of a nuclear device and subsequent development of a nuclear weapons program. In response to Bush’s promise, Singh pledged that a greater share of the civilian portions of India’s nuclear complex would be subjected to international oversight despite nationalist opposition.

Heady expectations that the two governments would swiftly real ize the agreement accompanied its announcement. The lead U.S. negotiator, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, predicted July 19 that the administration would provide Congress an implementation plan within the “next month or two.”

But this plan has since been postponed by prolonged negotiations between the United States and India on a mutually acceptable list of Indian civilian nuclear facilities to be subjected to international monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The agency is entrusted with guarding against the misuse of peaceful nuclear materials and technologies for arms purposes.

India possesses an estimated 50 to 100 nuclear weapons and re serves the option to produce more. However, the United States, as well as China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, committed in the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) “not in any way to assist” a non-nuclear-weapon state’s acquisition of nuclear arms. Although New Delhi has not signed the NPT, India under the trea ty’s terms is a non-nuclear-weapon state because it did not explode a nuclear device before Jan. 1, 1967. Hence, New Delhi must clearly separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities so major nuclear suppliers do not violate their NPT obligations.

The U.S. position in the negotiations has been to get India to declare as many sites as possible as civilian, not only to provide as surances that nuclear transfers stay in the civilian sector and do not contribute to an Indian nuclear arms buildup but also to reduce risks of outside tampering or theft. The Department of State responded Jan. 17 to questions posed about the July 18 deal by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) by stating that “it is in India’s own interests to declare the maximum number of programs and facilities as civilian.”

However, the United States is not seeking to put under interna tional supervision existing spent nuclear fuel, which contains plutonium, a key ingredient for making nuclear arms. The State Depart ment in response to written questions by Senate Foreign Relations Com mittee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) said that “as most such agreements are not retroactive, we would not expect the agreement to specify that previously produced material must be returned to the plant in order to be placed under safeguards.”

Washington has reportedly pressed for safeguards on India’s fast-breeder reactor program, which the State Department described to Lugar as posing “proliferation risks.” Fast-breeder reactors produce large quantities of plutonium. India is short on uranium, the com mon base for nuclear fuel, and has expansive plans centered on plutonium as a civil fuel source.

The U.S. approach upsets the Indian nuclear establishment. Anil Kakodkar, chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission and secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy, told the Indian Express in an interview published Feb. 8 that inclusion of the nascent breeder reactor program was unacceptable. “This would amount to getting shackled,” he stated, explaining that the “fuel cycle is for the same infrastructure which also feeds the strategic program.”

Kakodkar summed up the negotiations as a “difficult exercise.” The fundamental problem, he stressed, is that the Indian nuclear fuel cycles for nuclear weapons and energy are “intimately intertwined.” India has rejected U.S. entreaties to end its production of fissile material (highly enriched uranium and plutonium) for weapons.

Ronen Sen, India’s ambassador to the United States, contended Feb. 21 in Washington that the separation matter has received “undue focus.” He added, “[T]he debate, I think, has been hijacked over here by nonproliferation theologians and in India by those rallying under the banner of self-reliance, even though it might not be con ducive to our overall self-interests.”

Currently, the 45 members of the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group restrict nuclear exports to India because it lacks full-scope safeguards, which entails IAEA supervision of all nuclear facilities and materials. Washington as part of the July 18 deal has said it will seek consensus to exempt India from this rule.

France is eager to expand nuclear trade with India and, according to a Feb. 20 Indian government press release, a French company is involved in “pre-feasibility studies” for a new Indian nuclear power reactor. A joint declaration by the two governments the same day further notes that they are working toward a “bilateral cooperation agreement” on nuclear energy and “look forward to adjustment of [the] international civil nuclear cooperation framework…so that the agreement can be implemented fully.”

One implementation step would involve the IAEA safeguarding India’s designated civilian facilities. In its response to Markey, the State Department observed, “We look forward to working with the IAEA and the Government of India to estimate those costs and to identify how best to meet them without undercutting inspections/ verification efforts in other countries.” These costs will be “signifi cant,” the State Department reported.