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I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Bush, Singh Advance Nuclear Deal
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Wade Boese

U.S. and Indian negotiators haggled up to the last minute but successfully completed a controversial plan March 2 dividing India’s nuclear complex into civilian and military sectors. Their success capped the first visit of President George W. Bush to India and moved the two governments closer toward their stated goal of ending India’s three-decade exclusion from the civil nuclear marketplace. But Congress and a group of more than 40 other countries must still be persuaded to go along.

Since 1974, when India conducted a nuclear explosion, it has largely been excluded from global nuclear commerce. But Bush, looking to improve relations between India and the United States, pledged last July to bring India back into the fold by revising U.S. laws and multilateral rules that restricted nuclear trade with India. In return, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh vowed to open up India’s nuclear complex to greater international scrutiny. (See ACT, September 2005.)

The March 2 separation plan appears to conform largely to Indian positions going into the final days of talks before Bush arrived in New Delhi. In a Feb. 27 speech to Indian lawmakers, Singh noted that the number of reactors that India would be willing to declare as civilian would be equivalent to 65 percent of India’s “installed thermal nuclear power capacity.” That was the portion that the United States ultimately accepted.

Specifically, India agreed to classify 14 of its 22 currently operating and planned thermal nuclear reactors as civilian and subject them to “India-specific” safeguards administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Safeguards are measures, such as inspections and remote monitoring, that the IAEA employs to verify that nuclear materials and facilities devoted to civilian purposes are not misused to make nuclear weapons.

Neither side has explained what “India-specific” safeguards means. Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to Bush, said to reporters March 2 that it was something for the IAEA and India to work out.

Safeguard negotiations between the agency and New Delhi have yet to begin. IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming told Arms Control Today March 20 that it was still “premature” for those discussions to start.

The U.S. and Indian governments agreed that once safeguards are installed they will remain in place in perpetuity, which was a U.S. demand. Not all of India’s 14 designated civilian reactors will be outfitted with safeguards immediately. New Delhi plans to phase in the safeguards gradually and complete the process in 2014.

Four existing Indian reactors and two currently under construction by Russia already have safeguards or are slated to have them. Hence, the agreed separation plan resulted in a net gain of eight reactors being volunteered for future safeguards. India has yet to identify the eight specific reactors.

An equal number of reactors will remain outside the IAEA’s jurisdiction and be available as potential contributors to India’s nuclear weapons program. Reactor-spent nuclear fuel contains plutonium, which is a key ingredient for building nuclear arms. India’s existing spent nuclear fuel, which includes enough plutonium for more than 1,000 nuclear weapons, would also remain outside safeguards.

Protecting its nuclear weapons prerogatives was a fundamental Indian position heading into the negotiations on the separation plan. Singh proudly reported March 7 to the Indian parliament that, under the completed plan, “[t]here will be no capping of our strategic program.” He added, “No constraint has been placed on our right to construct new facilities for strategic purposes.”

India possesses an estimated arsenal of 50-100 nuclear weapons and maintains it only wants a “minimum credible nuclear deterrent.” But New Delhi has not defined what that phrase means, except to say it includes air-, sea-, and land-based nuclear delivery options.

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, who served as the lead U.S. negotiator on the plan, acknowledged March 2 that “ India will continue, obviously, with its strategic program, and the agreement will not have an impact on that strategic program.” He further noted, “[T]hey could build facilities to service the nuclear weapons program, but the great majority of the growth we think will come on the civilian side.”

In this connection, Burns said that India promised to put under safeguards its future civilian fast-breeder reactors, which are ideally suited to produce plutonium. However, the plan leaves it up to India to decide if a future breeder reactor will be classified as civilian, and the Indian nuclear establishment has consistently maintained that it wants to keep breeder reactors free of safeguards. Indeed, India succeeded in keeping a prototype fast-breeder reactor and a test fast-breeder reactor from being designated as civilian in the separation plan.

Also among those exempted from safeguards is the CIRUS reactor, which New Delhi says it will shut down in 2010. CIRUS is a Canadian-supplied reactor that was used to produce the plutonium for India ’s controversial 1974 test. Until then, the United States had supplied heavy water for the facility. The Canadian and U.S. contracts had specified that the materials and the reactor be used only for peaceful purposes.

Washington pledged March 2 to ensure that India always has a steady supply of nuclear fuel. In the event there is a “disruption,” the United States has pledged to work with other suppliers, such as Russia, France, and the United Kingdom, to make sure India keeps receiving fuel.

This commitment is to be codified in a bilateral agreement for nuclear cooperation, which sets out specific terms for U.S. nuclear trade with individual countries and must be approved by Congress. Burns told reporters March 16 that the United States had presented India with a draft of a proposed U.S.-Indian agreement two days earlier. The Indian reaction to the document is unknown, and it is unclear how long it might take for the two sides to settle on final language.

The primary obstacle for India’s domestic expansion of its nuclear energy and weapons program is its dwindling supply of uranium for use as reactor fuel. Foreign fuel deliveries would alleviate this constraint. Washington and other leading nuclear suppliers are prohibited by the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty from assisting “in any way” another country’s nuclear weapons activities.