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Home > News > Columnists > K Subrahmanyam

India's N-programme: The perils ahead

April 12, 2007

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Whether India will be unable to acquire enough weapon-grade fissile materials for its perceived credible minimum deterrent requirement after it concludes the 123 Agreement with the United States and frees itself from the technology apartheid is at the heart of the debate on the civilian nuclear deal with the US.

Till a couple of weeks ago this remained a distant possibility because the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva was deadlocked on the issue. Now reports from the CD reveal that a coordinator has been appointed to help to initiate discussions on the subject.

Already the US has tabled a draft treaty on the subject. The draft contradicts all previous stands on arms control issues. Till now the US used to stand by President Ronald Reagan's famous dictum 'Trust but verify'.

But this time, the US has come round to the conclusion that verification in this case would involve too intrusive an inspection regime to a degree unacceptable to it and also would be excessively costly. Consequently, the US argues that a simple treaty among all pledging to cease production of weapon-grade fissile materials subject to verification by individual national technical means of verification would be adequate.

Such a stand by US contradicts its demand to enforce proliferation security initiative which is based on the assumption that there will be clandestine transfer of fissile materials.

The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency Dr Mohammed El-Baradei described Dr A Q Khan's operations as a nuclear Walmart. The origin of equipment and materials for Dr A Q Khan came mostly from Western European countries most of which are non-nuclear but advanced nuclear technology powers.

'When A Q Khan called me a Hindu bastard'

It is part of recorded history that Pakistan's nuclear weapon programme was based on the supply of fissile materials and nuclear technology from China. In these circumstances it is not clear how far the US draft will be found acceptable to other countries and if it will lead to a full arms control treaty.

Pakistan's nuclear bazaar

What is surprising is that in spite of all this information being available and the extent of availability of weapon-grade fissile materials having been at the centre of nuclear debate there is no discussion in our media on the future strategy for India on the issue.

Some have focused, as often happens, on US policies and raised the question whether India concentrating on the verification issue would be considered a breach of understanding between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George W Bush that the two countries collaborate on progressing towards the conclusion of a Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty.

While no doubt this is a valid and relevant question for the Indian policymaking, the more fundamental question is whether in the next two or three years which would take for a FMCT to be concluded, India would have adequate weapon-grade fissile material and if not, whether India should stay out of the Treaty as it did with the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The consequences of not signing the NPT are well known. India is being subject to technology apartheid. India did not suffer very much for not joining the CTBT, thanks to the US Senate action the treaty did not come into force. However, India should be prepared for the consequences of not going along with US on the discussions leading to the FMCT.

When India stayed out of NPT it relied on Homi Bhabha's three stage programme for nuclear energy. The expectation was that within 50 years India would have crossed stage I -- the heavy water-natural uranium reactor -- stage II -- the fast breeder reactor and would have reached stage III -- the thorium conversion to U-233. At that stage India would be more than self-sufficient in thorium that could be converted into fissile material U-233.

Some 47 years after the NPT came into force, India is at the second stage of Bhabha Plan.

'Bhabha wanted India to be a Nuclear Weapons State'

According to Frontline magazine dated March 23, 'A problem however remains: the shortage of natural uranium that fuels the indigenous PHWRs (Pressurised heavy water reactors). The projects for mining uranium are delayed because of the local opposition, especially in Mehgalaya and Andhra Pradesh. This in turn has led to a delay in starting on the construction of 700 MW indigenous PHWRs. The capacity factor of the operating 220 MW PHWRs has also dropped because of the shortage.'

If India stays out of FMCT, then India will have to devise a strategy to reach the stage III of the Bhabha plan of having a series of fast breeder reactors which will convert thorium to uranium 233 on the basis of indigenously available uranium. Otherwise the shortage of indigenous uranium will slow down and bring to a halt our nuclear programme unless new discoveries of uranium ore are made in the country. China too will depend upon imported uranium for its nuclear reactor requirements. But China already has a significant arsenal and has accepted all conditionalities imposed by the US 123 agreement, the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the recent agreement with Australia for supply of uranium ore.

There can be two results to a long term projection of our nuclear programme based on indigenous ore. The first is that India will be able to reach the third stage of having adequate number of fast breeder reactors that can generate enough U-233 fissile material for India's future needs.

Knowledgeable observers feel that U-233 technology is at least some 40-50 years off. That would mean that India should have adequate indigenous uranium to see us through the next four to five decades. The requirement of natural uranium for such a programme is a matter of calculation and the Department of Atomic Energy should be able to tell the country whether this is feasible on the basis of data available and reasonable assumptions that can be made.

The second result is the country cannot support such a nuclear programme on the basis of indigenous uranium ore only and we would need imported ore. In that case India will not be in a position to stay out of the FMCT. That will call for an appropriate strategy both in respect of building up of our assessment level of credible minimum deterrent and to sustain our future nuclear energy programme. We may have to take into account the international repercussions of our staying out of FMCT with respect to our participation in various international nuclear energy programmes.

It is not the purpose of this article to advocate any particular strategy. This article is only a plea that the country should start debating its options in a world where FMCT comes into force. Our Cirus reactor and Israeli Dimona reactor were commissioned at the same time. Thereafter in mid-1980s India added Dhruva with double the capacity of Cirus and Dimona.

While Israel is reputed to have a significant arsenal, in India concern is expressed about our credible minimum deterrent. Obviously it was a question of management strategy of fissile materials production. The lesson is the imperative need for strategic thinking about the future of our nuclear programme and management of our arsenal.





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