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Home > News > Interview

The Rediff Interview/Nuclear scientist Dr A N Prasad

'There is great risk of our nuclear programmes being driven by external forces'

June 01, 2007

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While Indian and American diplomats speak with growing optimism about finalising the India-US civilian nuclear agreement, the Indian scientific community maintains that the deal will be detrimental to India's indigenous nuclear programme.

Right from when the deal was in its nascent stages, the most vociferous opposition has come from the Indian scientific community. Though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has tried to allay their fears time and again, the scientists are convinced that the nuclear treaty will do more harm than good to India's ambitious nuclear programme.

Dr A N Prasad, a former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai, articulates the anguish of the scientific community in an interview with Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt.

With the 123 Agreement 'almost done', what are your major apprehensions?

The Hyde Act is a legal document based on which the US can negotiate the 123 bilateral agreement (An agreement for cooperation as a prerequisite for nuclear deals between the US and any other nation) with India. However, the Act has several sections which are not in conformity with the letter and spirit of the understanding reached by the US president [George W Bush] and the Indian prime minister (Manmohan Singh) as spelt out in their joint statements issued in July 2005 and March 2006.

This is in spite of President Bush's repeated assurances that there will not be any shifting of goal posts and India raising the issues of concern during the negotiations.

If one reads the July 18, 2005, Joint Statement and the Hyde Act together, it is clear that the bilateral agreement that the US has in mind is all about 'capping'; it is an attempt to roll back our strategic nuclear programme, and make India commit to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty through the back door, and place road blocks on our fast reactor programme.

Further, it denies India the right to reprocess -- in spite of 40 years of experience in this field. It denies full civil nuclear cooperation, contrary to the original understanding by excluding important and major portions of the nuclear cycle, such as uranium enrichment, spent fuel reprocessing and heavy water.

Thereby, the US is, in essence, continuing the technology and supply denials; it is continuing the restrictions and embargoes as before.

The US is refusing to give assurances of uranium supply. This is bound to make India look for constant supplies depending on the US' certification of India's good behaviour in terms of Washington's standards and liking, and also keep all our civil nuclear facilities and materials under safeguards in perpetuity, irrespective of the fate of the cooperation agreement.

The list is endless. The deal is more for promoting US business interests. In this light, the biggest apprehension is, notwithstanding the assurances of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Parliament and the group of senior scientists in August 2006, what I apprehend is that India may be pressured into signing the 123 Agreement.

This can be done by fixing the language in such a way that the contentious issues are left vague and to be dealt with as they develop in future.

If this happens, we would be taking a suicidal step, since while the administrations in the two countries could always change with time, the Hyde Act will be hanging like a Damocles' sword over India's neck.

We should not be caught on the fudging of the intent of provisions in the Hyde Act as 'binding', 'non-binding', etc.

Don't you agree that all the international deals are basically on a principle of give some and take some? Compromises have to be made, and that's what, after all, negotiations are about. According to you, what can India afford to give for the sake of getting the fuel and for ending India's nuclear isolation?

Of course, all deals involve give and take. If one looks at the July 18, 2005, Joint Statement where it all began, there are a number of things India is required to comply in return for the US accepting India as a responsible partner with good credentials; a partner which is eligible to be treated at par with other advanced countries such as the US.

This implied India becoming a global player contributing in a significant way to the development of nuclear energy globally with all its experience, which has been built meticulously over a period of more than five decades, covering a very wide spectrum of activities that many of the so-called developed countries cannot boast of.

Against this expectation, the agreement is being steered into the direction of India becoming a country perpetually dependent on restricted supplies from outside with hardly any independence and respect left.

There is a starting point for the deal in the joint statement: Assurances from the US president to stay the course without shifting the goal post. And then, of course, there is our prime minister's assurance to Parliament insisting that the terms of the Joint Statement and separation plan of March 2006 as spelt out by him will be adhered to.

The prime minister assured Parliament that India would be drawing its own conclusions and would be acting in its national interest.

Therefore, India should fully comply with its part of the original commitment by placing all facilities declared under the civilian category as well as materials imported under a mutually-agreed safeguards arrangement with the International Atomic Energy Agency in perpetuity in return for the US complying with its part of the commitment, including assurances of uranium supply, and providing India with full civil nuclear cooperation by lifting all embargoes and restrictions on our right to reprocess.

The deal should not be looked at as benefiting only India. This deal is also expected to do tremendous good to the revival of the US nuclear industry, which has been dormant for nearly three decades.

India has a lot to offer to the international community in this field. It is not fair to look down upon India just because it is having a shortage of uranium, which is a passing phase but for which we need not have cared for such a deal.

Let us presume that the 123 Agreement is through but with the strings attached. What will happen next? What will India's serving scientists do? In your opinion, how will the Department of Atomic Energy react?

There is no question of serving scientists going on strike over the deal! Scientists will continue to contribute, though with less motivation, silently suffering the effects of bartering away the freedom of action, as all programmes will come under scrutiny directly or indirectly by the US as well as IAEA.

The scientists will lose quite a bit of their pride of achievement, as intrusiveness picks up in some form or other.

The momentum for indigenous development could slow down. This is not the way to achieve long term energy security -- by perpetually becoming dependent on external supplies of uranium at the whims and fancies of the supplier countries.

In spite of so many serious implications of the 123 Agreement and the Hyde Act, why has not a single serving scientist -- or any of those scientists who are part of the negotiating teams -- spoken openly against the deal? How come only retired scientists are talking against the deal?

It is a fallacy to say that because the serving scientists are quiet, they are for the deal as it is emerging.

The majority of them, in private conversations, are unhappy with the way the deal is taking shape.

Even after striking the deal, if there is no full civilian nuclear cooperation with continuing embargoes as before in areas that matter -- such as no right to use the technology or indigenously-developed technology like reprocessing and no unrestricted access to uranium -- then, what have we gained in real terms? Just a few reactors!

And, that too without the guarantee of fuel supplies over their lifetime, and constantly living with a fear of shutting them down at great economic penalty if the Hyde Act is strictly forced on us at any time.

These are the questions being asked by the scientists, though not in public. On the other hand, it is a sad thing that many in the scientific community, as well as the business community, are kept in the dark about the intricacies of the Hyde Act and the risks involved in enforcing it.

Regarding why retired scientists are more vocal, serving scientists by and large are not used to air their views publicly as they are bound by the oath of secrecy and there is a lack of clarity of the dividing line.

The retired scientists who are speaking on this deal have made pioneering contributions in different fields and they fully understand what they are talking. They don't have any axe to grind. Their main interest is to preserve the national interest, independence and long term energy security. They have no vested interests. They don't have to stick to the chair. They know what Indian scientists are capable of, and how to achieve the goals without sacrificing pride and respect.

Isn't it true that India urgently needs fuel? And, to get fuel, don't we need to compromise somewhere? What are the best terms to get the fuel?

India needs uranium to increase power production in the near and perhaps medium term but not at the cost of its long-term interests.

If the deal is not equitable, and if all our concerns are not suitably addressed in specific language without ambiguity in the 123 Agreement, there is a great risk of our nuclear programmes being driven by external forces without India retaining absolute control.

Of the proposed compromises that are being talked about, which are the ones you find unacceptable?

The right of testing in the highly volatile terrorist environment in which we live; the right to reprocess; unrestricted uranium supplies; full civil nuclear cooperation without exceptions of certain parts of the fuel cycle; lifting of embargoes on civil nuclear activity; and safeguards in perpetuity to be made contingent on continuing bilateral cooperation so as to avoid any Tarapur-like situation -- these are some of the most crucial issues that should not be compromised in any eventuality.

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