Russia, India Ink Nuke Cooperation Deal

Peter Crail

During a Dec. 5 visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to New Delhi, Russia agreed to provide India with four new nuclear power plants as part of a nuclear cooperation agreement between the two countries. The agreement marks the third such accord India has signed with nuclear suppliers since a Sept. 6 decision by the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to lift a long-standing prohibition against providing nuclear technology to India. (See ACT, October 2008.) India signed similar agreements with France and the United States in September and October, respectively.

Russia and India also concluded several additional agreements on a range of issues, including defense and space cooperation.

The nuclear cooperation agreement cements a memorandum of understanding agreed in January 2007 regarding Russia's provision of four additional power reactors to be constructed at Kundankulam, in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu. (See ACT, March 2007.) The four reactors would join two reactors Russia is constructing at that site that are near completion.

Russia and India agreed on the construction of the first two reactors in 2001 over U.S. objections that such cooperation violated Russia's commitment to NSG rules. (See ACT, December 2001.) This time, however, Moscow waited until after the NSG decision to formalize the reactor construction deal. That decision exempted India from the group's 1992 rule not to provide nuclear technology to states that do not have full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

Full-scope safeguards require all nuclear activities in a state to be subject to monitoring and inspections by the agency to ensure that they are not diverted for weapons purposes. India, which has not joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) but tested nuclear devices in 1974 and 1998, has an active nuclear weapons program that is off-limits to such inspections.

As part of India's nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, New Delhi has agreed to formulate a plan to ensure that its military facilities and civilian facilities will operate autonomous of each other. It has pledged then to place all of its civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards by 2014. India currently has a total of 17 operating nuclear power reactors and has plans to construct an additional 25-30 by 2030 to help meet expected energy shortages.

In addition to the construction of the four new plants at Kundankulam stipulated under the Russian-Indian nuclear cooperation accord, a joint declaration signed by Medvedev and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indicated an intention to construct nuclear power reactors in other sites in India and "to expand and pursue further areas for bilateral cooperation in the field of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy."

The Indo-Asian News Service quoted Russian ambassador to New Delhi Vyacheslav Trubnikov Dec. 7 stating that Russia is "ready to build 10 more nuclear plants" should the Indian government decide to do so.

Russia's nuclear cooperation with India also involves supplying nuclear fuel for Indian reactors. Moscow agreed to provide New Delhi with a lifetime supply of fuel for the reactors that it is constructing, as well as to a five-year renewable contract to supply fuel for India's U.S.-origin nuclear reactors at Tarapur. Russia has intermittently provided fuel for the Tarapur reactors contrary to NSG rules and U.S. objections. (See ACT, March 2001.) Washington cut off U.S. fuel supplies for the reactors following India's 1974 nuclear test.

The United States reversed its objection to fueling the Tarapur reactors in a 2005 joint statement between Singh and President George W. Bush on nuclear cooperation between the two countries, which eventually led to the NSG exemption this year.

Russia's nuclear cooperation agreements do not include stipulations regarding conditions under which this fuel supply would be suspended, such as an Indian nuclear weapons test. A Russian diplomat told Arms Control Today Jan 14 that Moscow "would deal with nuclear cooperation with India in accordance with the NSG rules."

During the negotiations regarding the NSG waiver for India, several members argued that the group should stipulate that trade would be terminated in the event of an Indian test. (See ACT, October 2008.) At the U.S. insistence, however, this stipulation was not included in the text of the waiver. In a response to congressional questions regarding the U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement with India, the Department of State indicated in February, however, that "should India detonate a nuclear explosive device, the United States has the right to cease all nuclear cooperation with India immediately."

In addition to the Russian deal, the French nuclear conglomerate Areva concluded an agreement Dec. 18 to provide India with 300 tons of uranium for reactor fuel.

Neither the Russian nor the French fuel supply arrangements include provisions for the return of spent fuel to the country of origin. The lack of such a provision allows India to recover plutonium from the spent fuel by reprocessing it. Similarly, the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement provides India with advance consent to reprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel, an exception that has only been granted to Japan and the European Atomic Energy Community.

Generally, plutonium recovered from reprocessing may be used as part of the explosive core of nuclear weapons or as a component in the nuclear fuel for nuclear reactors such as "breeder reactors," which produce more plutonium than they consume. All foreign-origin fuel, including spent fuel reprocessed for plutonium, is subject to IAEA safeguards, thereby prohibiting it from being used for weapons.

New Delhi maintains three breeder reactors and has declared that it intends to develop a "three-stage fuel cycle" that will incorporate the use of such plants, thereby producing large amounts of plutonium. Although India has pledged to place its future civilian breeder reactors under IAEA safeguards, two such reactors are not included on its list of civilian nuclear facilities, and New Delhi has left open the possibility that additional breeder reactors may not be classified as civilian. (See ACT, April 2006.)