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Home > News > Columnists > A N Prasad

Nuclear deal: India has no leverage

August 06, 2007

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Ever since it was released on August 3, the much-awaited text of the India-United States nuclear deal has been profusely commented upon and covered in the media.

It is obvious the text has tried to accommodate diverging interests and constraints of both the parties by clever use of language -- to give an illusory impression that the concerns are duly reflected. 

For the sake of public comfort, both parties are saying loudly that they are free to hold on to their respective rights and legal positions.

It means hardly anything as far as India is concerned. Up against the Hyde Act standing like a Rock of Gibraltar, India has no leverage to force any of the issues during the innumerable consultations suggested in the text.

In fact, our case was compromised to a large extent when this American act was passed, our prime minister's assurances to the contrary notwithstanding.

We are now in effect reduced to a mere recipient State mandated by the Hyde Act to carry out a set of dos and don'ts and to strive to earn a good behaviour report card to become eligible to continue receiving what the Americans can offer.

In the process, slowly but surely, they can gain control and remotely drive our nuclear programmes in the long run.

This deal, through the Hyde Act, gives far too many opportunities to penetrate deep into and interfere even in our three-stage programme to slow down the realisation of our goal of harnessing our vast resources of thorium for long-term energy security.

Two points in support of this, which have largely missed notice:

One, the revelation by Nicholas Burns, US under secretary of state during his interview to the Council on Foreign Relations: 'It had been an easy "strategic" choice for Washington when faced with the question -- should we isolate India for the next 35 years or bring it in partially now (under safeguards inspection) and nearly totally in the future.'

Two, Article 16.2 of the text says the 123 Agreement shall remain in force for a period of 40 years and at the end of this initial period each party may terminate by giving six month's notice. There is no in-built provision for terminating before 40 years even if we were to suffer for any reason in the implementation of the deal.

These 40 years are expected to cover the period by which we intend to take thorium utilisation to a commercial reality. A coincidence?  

It is naive to judge the merits of the deal based purely on the language of the text. The underlying undercurrents and intentions of the controlling party are important and cannot be wished away as hypothetical or as their internal matter when they do actually have serious repercussions on our long-term interests.

There has been a careful balancing of US commercial interests with the goal of bringing India into the non-proliferation hold, an American obsession ever since the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into existence in 1970.

There have been overt suggestions in the Hyde Act to the American administration to not only attempt to cap but also try to eventually roll back our strategic programme and report to the US Congress.

Try they will; but whether we are smart enough to thwart their designs or they manage to succeed -- given the tremendous access they get through this deal � is something time will tell.

Let me turn to some of the most contentious issues that have not been satisfactorily resolved. 

Reprocessing

This has been stated to be the most hotly debated issue. Let me therefore deal with it in some detail in simple terms to put things in perspective.

Reprocessing is at the core of our three-stage nuclear power programme. It is the interface between the first and the second stage and again between the second and the third stage.

In the first step, it facilitates extracting plutonium from the spent uranium fuel and feeding to the fast breeder reactors in the second stage as fuel -- where thorium fuel is also introduced.

When thorium is converted into fissile uranium in the fast reactors, the same is extracted by reprocessing to be fed into third stage reactors where large-scale thorium utilisation occurs.

It was once estimated that with the limited resources of uranium in the country more than 350,000 MW of electricity could be produced through thorium utilisation, ensuring long-term energy security. The steady progress India is making with starting the construction of the first 500 Mwe prototype fast breeder reactor is an envy of many in the advanced world.

Recognising the key role of reprocessing, development activities were started as early as 1959 -- much before even the first nuclear power reactor became operational at Tarapur in 1969.

While the first power reactor was imported from the US, the first reprocessing facility was built entirely through indigenous efforts and went into operation in 1965.

The irony is, the US -- knowing fully well our four decades of experience in reprocessing and aware of its importance in our three-stage programme -- has sought to create impediments and make us beg for reprocessing consent, that too after accepting us as strategic partner.

What hypocrisy! Should we call this nuclear cooperation or non-cooperation?

Is it not obvious that their intention is to place hurdles on our thorium-utilisation programme right from the beginning?

In fact, even though there is what is called a fast reactor nuclear fuel cycle, not a word is mentioned in the Agreement on fast-reactor cooperation. The text calls for all future fast breeder reactors to be put under the civilian list for applying safeguards in perpetuity -- just because plutonium extracted from imported uranium spent fuel is fed into these reactors.

It is a pity our negotiators have chosen not to pursue extending the cooperation into the area of fast reactors at least to the extent that we should be able to access the international market for equipment and components which otherwise have to be produced by Indian industry with considerable effort

The way the reprocessing issue has been resolved certainly does not give any comfort. What has been agreed to is consent in principle, with the arrangements and procedures to be agreed in the future. Having offered a dedicated facility for reprocessing imported fuel, we should have got unconditional upfront consent to be made effective on satisfactory conclusion of safeguards.

The intent of the American legislation is to deny reprocessing rights to NPT countries that don't already have this technology. We cannot be equated with Japan [Images], which  Burns reportedly said has been used as a model for resolving this issue. I can say from personal knowledge that Japan was totally unhappy in dealing with the US while negotiating procedures and arrangements in the late 1970s for their reprocessing plant.

We should watch out.

Also, in the entire fuel cycle, application of safeguards on reprocessing is the toughest. The point of concern is that Burns keeps harping that the dedicated facility, though not mentioned in the text, has been offered by India as a state-of-the-art facility. This is a possible conflict point during the consultations on safeguard-feasibility, as there is no reference standard on the design of such a facility in the world. Information on the less than a handful of facilities operating in the world at present is kept secret and not shared.

Perhaps the dedicated plant we have offered will be the first plant to be wide open to the outside world. The US will definitely have a good look at it!

Being a dedicated facility committed to full safeguards, it should be our endeavour to obtain special items of equipment and hardware components from the international market.

Full civil nuclear cooperation

In spite of the prime minister's assurances, the issue of full civil cooperation has not been resolved in our favour. The text has allowed an unfair definition of this term, with the result that embargoes will continue on the most complex part of the fuel cycle facilities -- such as enrichment, reprocessing and heavy water.

Though we may not need to import technology as such, there should have been an opportunity to access the world market for specific low quantity dual-use items which otherwise have to be produced by Indian industry.

This historic deal not being able to get rid of sanctions, despite India taking on a whole lot of burdens on safeguards and other aspects, is a big disappointment.

Testing

This is a much-talked-about topic, and any further discussion is like flogging a dead horse.

Suffice to say, irrespective of what is said or unsaid, we have surrendered our decision -- though not the legal right -- for all practical purposes. Talk of multi-layered consultations and actions is all an eyewash and public relations exercise.

Fallback safeguarded safeguards

It is surprising that such a hypothetical issue has found specific mention in the text, contrary to the prime minister's assurance. There is every likelihood that this can be invoked. Though it is the bounden duty of the International Atomic Energy Agency to apply safeguards in member States in a cost effective manner, there is a large inflow of extra-budgetary grants for this activity.

With a huge spurt in safeguards load from India, whose cost substantially has to be met by additional extra-budgetary grants, there could well be a move in future to create a situation that due to paucity of funds the IAEA puts its hands up for the US to step in.

At that point the US inspectors will roam around in our nuclear plants, irrespective of what our prime minister has assured.

The bottom line

With the proposed deal we have in our hands, one statement baffles: 'This Agreement is between two States possessing advanced nuclear technology, both Parties having the same benefits and advantages.'

How I wish this had been really true! It is hard to find any point on which we have the leverage to dictate with a position of strength in this deal, in spite of being rightly labelled as a State possessing advanced nuclear technology. 

Dr A N Prasad, a distinguished nuclear scientist and an international authority on the issue of safeguards, is former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.


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