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Impact of the U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal on India’s Fissile Production Capacity for Weapons
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Note for Reporters by Daryl G. Kimball

Immediate Release: November 15, 2006
Press Contact: Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association, (202) 463-8270 x107 (Office)

This week, the Senate might debate and vote on proposed legislation (S. 3709) to relax long-standing restrictions on U.S. nuclear trade with India, which is not a member of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and does not accept full-scope safeguards as required by current U.S. law and guidelines established by the major nuclear supplier states.

One of the central issues about the proposal is how the supply of U.S. and other foreign nuclear fuel to safeguarded Indian nuclear power reactors would allow India to use more of its existing domestic supply of uranium to produce fissile material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for nuclear weapons.

Not only would such indirect assistance of India’s bomb program run counter to U.S. NPT commitments, it could foster greater nuclear arms competition with Pakistan and China.

Consequently, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) plans to offer an amendment requiring the president to determine that U.S. nuclear assistance does not in any way facilitate or encourage an increase in India’s nuclear bomb material production rate. Other Senators may propose amendments conditioning broader U.S. nuclear trade with India on it joining the five original nuclear-weapon states in voluntarily halting the production of fissile material for weapons purposes or negotiating a multilateral, nondiscriminatory production cutoff agreement with other fissile material producers.

Such approaches are not only common sense but would be consistent with UN Security Council actions. Passed unanimously in June 1998 after India’s and Pakistan’s May nuclear tests, UN Security Council Resolution 1172 calls upon both countries to stop the further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. The resolution also calls on the two countries to immediately stop their nuclear weapons development programs, refrain from weaponization or deployment of nuclear weapons, cease development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and join other nations in a legally-binding nuclear test ban treaty. 

Fissile Myths

Some proponents of the U.S.-Indian deal extol India’s pledge to support U.S. efforts to negotiate a global fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) at the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva. India’s commitment to support U.S. efforts to negotiate an FMCT is a laudable but hollow promise. India has provided rhetorical support for a global verifiable FMCT in the past, yet it has done nothing to advance the negotiations nor has it joined the original nuclear-weapon states in voluntarily halting production. Ongoing differences between the United States and most other states, including India, on whether such a treaty should be verified and competing negotiating priorities at the CD continue to make the prospects for concluding an FMCT difficult at best. 

Other proponents of the nuclear deal have countered by claiming that India has large reserves of uranium already and that India’s nuclear bomb program is not currently constrained by its domestic uranium stockpile. They assert that U.S. and other foreign nuclear fuel supplies would not facilitate increased bomb material production by India and would only help relieve India’s shortage of nuclear fuel for nuclear energy production. Not true.

Fissile Material Realities

There is no debate that India possesses “uranium reserves.” But the fact is that India has been unable to exploit these reserves to the extent that advocates for the nuclear deal have claimed. As a result, India would be hard pressed to expand its nuclear energy output and maintain, let alone increase, the rate of production of fissile material for weapons unless it can significantly expand domestic uranium mining and milling and/or get access to the international nuclear fuel market.

India currently produces about 300 tons of uranium annually, which is almost two-thirds of what is needed to run its current heavy-water power reactors and support its production of highly enriched uranium for its nuclear submarine program and its current weapons-grade plutonium production rate (enough for approximately six to 10 bombs annually). India has had to rely on stocks of previously mined and processed uranium to meet the shortfall. The addition of new reactors in the near future will increase the total demand for uranium beyond projected increases in domestic uranium production.

Simply put, India’s production of weapons-grade plutonium is currently constrained by the requirements of its nuclear power reactors on its limited domestic supply of natural uranium.

This is why K. Subrahmanyam, the former head of the National Security Advisory Board, wrote:

“Given India’s uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our minimum credible nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India’s advantage to categorise as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refueled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons-grade plutonium production.” (K. Subrahmanyam, “India and the Nuclear Deal,” Times of India, December 12, 2005.)

This is why an Indian official “close to the prime minister” told the British Broadcasting Corporation:

“The truth is we were desperate. We have nuclear fuel to last only till the end of 2006. If this agreement had not come through we might have as well closed down our nuclear reactors and by extension our nuclear program.” (Sanjeev Srivastava, “Indian P.M. Feels Political Heat,” British Broadcasting Corporation, July 26, 2005.)

Impact of Foreign Nuclear Supplies on India’s Bomb Production Capacity

There are several scenarios that could allow India to utilize foreign nuclear fuel supplies to help it increase fissile material production for weapons purposes from its current annual rate of six to 10 bombs worth to several dozen per year.

For instance, if India builds a new plutonium-production reactor (as it is reportedly planning to do) or decides to use one or more of the eight existing heavy-water reactors that would be excluded from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards to augment its two existing military plutonium-production reactors (CIRUS and Dhruva), the additional increased consumption of domestic uranium supplies for plutonium production would be compensated for by access to imported uranium for safeguarded power reactors.

India has also kept the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) out of safeguards for the purpose of “maintaining long term energy security and for maintaining the minimum credible deterrent.” This reactor, to be completed in 2010, could produce up to 130 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium each year, which would be a four-fold increase in India’s current output and equivalent to another 25 nuclear weapons annually.

And, if India no longer needs to rely on domestic uranium to fuel its power reactors, it could also expand its small-scale centrifuge enrichment program to make highly enriched uranium to support nuclear weapons production.

Bottom Line

Absent a decision by New Delhi to halt the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, the proposed U.S.-Indian nuclear trade deal would allow India to continue and possibly accelerate the buildup of its nuclear weapons material stockpile.

If India is truly committed to a “minimum credible deterrent,” it should be able to declare as a matter of national policy that it has stopped fissile material production for weapons or join the United States, China, France, Pakistan, Russia, and the United Kingdom in a multilateral, nondiscriminatory fissile material cutoff agreement pending completion of a global, verifiable FMCT.

In the very least, the president should to be able to certify to Congress that U.S. nuclear supplies to India do nothing to assist or encourage India’s nuclear bomb program.

For a detailed technical analysis on this subject, see Fissile Materials in South Asia: The Implications of the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal by Zia Mian, A. H. Nayyar, R. Rajaraman, and M.V. Ramana. This September 2006 research report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials is online at http://www.fissilematerials.org/ipfm/site_down/ipfmresearchreport01.pdf.

For more resources, documents, statements, and the text and reports of the legislation, see the Arms Control Association’s special resource page on the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal at http://www.armscontrol.org/projects/india/.

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