U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal: Round II

By Daryl G. Kimball

The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) faces enough difficulties without the additional burden of preferential treatment for NPT holdout states. Nevertheless, the George W. Bush administration won congressional approval last December for an ill-conceived nuclear trade bill that would blow a hole in U.S. and global nonproliferation rules. The legislation would allow India-specific waivers to U.S. laws designed to prevent the misuse of U.S. nuclear technology to build weapons, as India did in the 1970s.

Yet, the deal is not done. The United States and India must still conclude a formal agreement for nuclear cooperation, and U.S. leaders must win the consensus approval for changes to the guidelines of the 45-nation Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG), which restrict trade with states that do not accept comprehensive nuclear safeguards.

In the weeks and months ahead, U.S. officials cannot afford to make further concessions that could compound the damage to the nonproliferation system. Other leading governments also have a responsibility to help remedy the deep flaws in the deal and hold all states to a higher nonproliferation and disarmament standard.

In exchange for Bush’s commitment to help lift restrictions on nuclear trade with India, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated India’s pledge not to resume nuclear testing and agreed to allow international inspections of more reactors by 2014. But India insists on keeping at least eight other reactors and India’s extensive military nuclear complex off-limits and refuses to halt the production of plutonium and uranium for bombs.

Under these circumstances, partial safeguards are all symbol and no substance. Even worse, U.S. supplies of uranium could free up India’s limited domestic uranium supply for weapons and violate U.S. legal obligations under Article I of the NPT not to assist India’s bomb program.

The Bush administration has brushed aside these objections, but new difficulties are surfacing that could derail the deal. U.S. and Indian negotiators are at odds over their draft agreement for nuclear cooperation. Under pressure from its nuclear establishment, Indian officials are lobbying for further concessions that would reduce accountability and increase the capacity of its civil and military programs but would be inconsistent with minimal conditions for trade established by Congress last year.

Current U.S. law stipulates that nuclear trade would end and U.S. nuclear supplies must be returned if India resumes testing or otherwise violates the agreement. Nevertheless, New Delhi wants to drop references in the agreement to these requirements and ensure that commercial nuclear contracts continue even if the underlying agreement is breached. Unlike 177 other states, India has so far refused to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and is under no legal obligation not to test. At the same time, New Delhi must face the reality that other states are under no legal or political obligation to assist India if it defies the world with another nuclear blast.

Congress also specified that safeguards on India’s “civil” nuclear facilities and U.S.-supplied material must be permanent and consistent with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) standards. India has rejected comprehensive safeguards but allows permanent, facility-specific safeguards for six older reactors. Nevertheless, New Delhi is seeking “India-specific” safeguards that would be suspended if foreign fuel supplies are interrupted. There is no precedent or safeguards plan for such an option, and it would be highly irresponsible for the IAEA or its 35-nation board to ever approve such a hollow arrangement.

Last year’s legislation specifically prohibits U.S. transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to India, including uranium-enrichment and plutonium-separation equipment. It also preserves a requirement for U.S. consent for the enrichment or reprocessing of U.S.-origin material. Indian officials are strenuously objecting. But so far, U.S. negotiators are resisting, partly because India has rejected permanent safeguards on its reprocessing and enrichment facilities and its plutonium-producing fast breeder reactors.

Finally, the deal must win the NSG’s consensus approval. Despite heavy pressure from U.S. and Indian diplomats, many NSG states remain skeptical or opposed, but until they see all the details, they are officially reserving judgment. Meanwhile, Chinese and French officials suggest the NSG should adopt “criteria-based” trade guidelines rather than an “India-specific” rule. This could open the way for nuclear trade with China’s ally Pakistan and possibly with Israel, creating additional proliferation risks.

To ensure that nuclear assistance to India or others does not aid weapons production, responsible NSG states must hold the line. At a minimum, they must reject proposals that could allow nuclear trade involving enrichment or reprocessing technology to any non-NPT member and bar nuclear trade with any non-NPT member that continues to produce fissile material for bombs or resumes nuclear testing.

The ongoing struggle to stop the spread and stockpiling of nuclear weapons will only become more difficult if leading states preach compliance for the many and create exceptions for their friends. India can gain access to the global nuclear technology market if it can overcome the urge to build up and improve its nuclear arsenal. For others, the proposal is a test of their commitment to a more universal and responsible approach to nuclear control in the 21st century—a test we cannot afford to fail.