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Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
Contradictions Still Plague U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal
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Daryl G. Kimball

Two and a half years after President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced their proposed U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation deal, the ill-conceived arrangement faces a highly uncertain future. In the next few weeks, decisions will likely be made at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that will determine whether the deal occurs at all and, if so, at what cost to the global nuclear nonproliferation system.

As soon as this month, the IAEA Board of Governors may be convened to consider a new India-specific safeguards agreement. If approved, the 44 other members of the NSG might then act on a U.S. proposal to exempt India from long-standing guidelines that require comprehensive IAEA safeguards as a condition of nuclear supply. If these bodies agree, the United States and other suppliers could finalize bilateral nuclear trade deals with India.

Although many states are willing to bend some rules to help India buy new reactors and the additional fuel needed to run them, there is growing resistance to forms of nuclear trade that could indirectly enable India’s nuclear weapons program or that would allow continued nuclear trade if India breaks its pledge not to resume nuclear test explosions. There is good reason for such concern because India violated past agreements on peaceful nuclear cooperation when it tested its first nuclear device in 1974 and has refused to allow comprehensive IAEA safeguards.

Contrary to claims of its proponents, the deal does not bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream. In fact, given India’s refusal to join the five original nuclear-weapon states in halting the production of fissile material for weapons, foreign supplies of nuclear fuel could free up New Delhi’s existing (and limited) uranium stockpile and increase its capacity to produce more nuclear bomb material. Unlike 177 other states, India has not yet signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Meanwhile, Indian officials are highly sensitive to concerns that the deal could affect its nuclear weapons program. To preserve India’s military options, the Singh government has bargained hard for unprecedented fuel supply assurances and unspecified “corrective measures” in the new safeguards agreement to offset disruptions that might occur if India resumes testing.

Indian leaders are also demanding terms of trade with other nuclear suppliers that sidestep the minimal but vital nonproliferation conditions and restrictions established by Congress in 2006 implementing legislation. The law, known as the Hyde Act, would require the termination of U.S. nuclear trade if New Delhi resumes nuclear testing or violates its safeguards commitments.

To improve its fuel production and spent fuel reprocessing capabilities, the Singh government has fought tooth and nail to secure access to uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies. The Hyde Act effectively bars the transfer of these sensitive nuclear technologies, which India could potentially use to enhance its military nuclear program.

Yet, India is demanding an NSG exemption without any of these and other conditions or restrictions. To date, the Bush administration has carried India’s water. The current U.S. draft proposal calls for a “clean” exemption, and the bilateral U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement contradicts the Hyde Act in several areas.

But at a hearing Feb. 13, the new chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), challenged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on this approach, noting that would give other nuclear suppliers, such as France and Russia, a commercial advantage and undermine U.S. nonproliferation objectives. Rice told Berman that the United States would pursue India-specific nuclear trade guidelines that are “completely consistent” with the Hyde Act.

Days later, India’s special envoy, Shyam Saran, contradicted Rice, saying that “it is our expectation that there would be a fairly simple and clean exemption from these guidelines, without any conditions or even expectations regarding India’s conduct in the future.” He asserted that India has “no problem with permanent safeguards provided there are permanent supplies of fuel.”

Saran noted that, in the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement, the Bush administration pledged to help India amass a strategic fuel reserve and provide fuel supplies for the lifetime of its safeguarded reactors. Yet, at the urging of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Hyde Act stipulates that fuel supplies should only be “commensurate with reasonable reactor requirements.”

Now is the time for Congress and responsible members of the NSG to hold the Bush administration to Rice’s pledge to support international guidelines for trade with India that, at the very least, incorporate the minimal requirements mandated by U.S. law. If India’s leaders cannot even abide by these minimal standards and decide to reject the deal, that is their choice. Additional concessions to India will only further compromise the already beleaguered global nonproliferation system.