January 1, 2010

A nuclear power by any name

On November 29th, Dr Manmohan Singh announced that India was ready to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), provided it could do so as a nuclear power. Presently, there are only five countries that are recognised as nuclear powers under the NPT, namely the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China. Not coincidentally, these countries are the only permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

This timely move by Dr Singh is a welcome one. It is the next natural step in the evolution from a nuclear pariah to a responsible member of the international nuclear establishment. The India-US agreement on civilian nuclear co-operation signed in 2005 and subsequently ratified by the George W Bush administration, as well as the agreement with the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), means that India is now in a position once again to procure nuclear raw materials and technology from international suppliers, after thirty five years of sanctions.

Countries such as Australia still sit on their non-proliferation high horse and refuse to deal with India, though India has already signed agreements with both France and Russia, and is reported to be close to signing an agreement with Canada for the supply of uranium. This demonstrates that the Indian market is indeed attractive to the beleaguered nuclear industry, which has been boxed in after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents.

The Indian government must recognise the strength of its position, and must not fritter away this advantage. However, it should be wary of any technology from either US or Russian sources. These are the only countries that use enriched uranium in their reactors, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that these are also the only countries that have had serious accidents. The rest of the world uses natural uranium, as did India until now (aside from the indigenously developed thorium technology).

There seems to be a worrying rush in some sections of the government to reward US companies to show appreciation for the treaty. The report that the Indian cabinet is about to approve a law that would cap the liability of US-based companies selling reactors to India is highly worrisome. The India-US agreement is a done deal, and the NSG’s decision is essentially irreversible. If the United States decides that it would embargo its own companies from further dealings with India, that country would be the loser, not India. With France and possibly Canada beginning to deal with India again, the floodgates are about to open, and it is not likely that the United States could persuade the NSG to reverse its earlier decision vis-a-vis India.

India must make significant investments in building plants based on indigenous technology such as the fast breeder reactor (originally conceived of in France, with further developments taking place in India). Counting on imported turnkey plants makes the country highly vulnerable to the withholding of  raw materials or spare parts depending on the prevailing geopolitical climate. It is highly misleading to suggest that Indian nuclear technology has somehow ‘failed’ because nuclear power is such a small part of our overall power production. Nuclear scientists can only develop the technology, but it requires political will and capital investments to convert the technology demonstrators into full-fledged power plants.

With regard to the NPT, Dr Singh is following up on a strategy that was conceived by the NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. When the first Pokhran tests were conducted in 1974, the word “bomb” was assiduously avoided, and the event was described by the euphemism PNE (Peaceful Nuclear Explosion). While there are undoubtedly some peaceful uses of nuclear explosions, more than anything else, that phrase betrayed India’s own ambivalence about its newly found status.

Had Jawaharlal Nehru given Indian scientists the green signal when giants like Homi Bhabha were around, it is possible that India would have had its own nuclear weapon in place before the NPT in 1968. Indira Gandhi also did not follow up the PNE with any specific strategy on the next steps. In contrast, the Vajpayee government not only conducted the Shakti series of tests (or Pokhran-II) in 1998, but also announced at once that it would not conduct any more tests. Over time, that government also put in place its nuclear doctrine, which included the explicit commitment not to be the first to use nuclear weapons in an armed conflict. Had the time been ripe for it, Mr Vajpayee might have announced then that India was ready to sign the NPT as a nuclear power.

Unfortunately time was not ripe back then. The international community reacted with fury and slammed the diplomatic door in India’s face. Country after country rushed to impose sanctions on India. This writer was a member of India’s strategic sector back then, and predicted that the sanctions would be undermined by US commercial interests, even without India doing anything about them.

In the event, it was the US-based companies that started bypassing the sanctions imposed by their own government. In the case of DRDO, the list of “banned” entities seems to have been prepared by someone using a two year-old telephone directory, because newly formed laboratories were absent from the list, and laboratories that had recently changed their names were listed under their old names. The US-based companies took advantage of this, and did a roaring business with all the non-banned laboratories. This, along with some masterful diplomacy by Jaswant Singh caused the sanctions to collapse. President Clinton himself visited India in February 2000, just 21 months after the sanctions were imposed, signalling the beginning of the end of India’s days in the nuclear doghouse. It took five more years for the next logical steps, namely the India-US nuclear treaty and the India-NSG agreements. The “nuclear power” title is inevitable.

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