The last mile in the nuclear negotiations - by M.R. Srinivasan PDF Print E-mail

A timeline that is arbitrary would only put pressure on the Indian negotiators and may lead to an agreement neither acceptable to the Indian people nor in the national interest. The historic agreement between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and United States President George W. Bush concluded on July 18, 2005, declared their resolve to "transform the relationship between their countries and establish a global partnership." The past two years have witnessed serious negotiations between the two countries, on a civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement, held in New Delhi, Washington, and elsewhere. We are approaching the last mile with a d elegation including National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan, Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Anil Kakodkar, and Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, beginning talks in Washington next week.

The July 18 agreement described India as a "responsible state with advanced nuclear technology" and said that it would "acquire the same benefits and advantages as other leading countries with nuclear technology, such as the United States." The U.S. was not willing to recognise India as a nuclear weapon state under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty but was prepared to deal with it on a special basis and agreed to it maintaining nuclear weapons and entering into civil nuclear cooperation with international partners. There was intense debate in the U.S. during the latter half of 2005 and much of 2006 by the traditional non-proliferation lobby against the agreement with India that President Bush had blessed. This lobby had greater success with the U.S. Congress and ensured that the Hyde Act was so drafted that India was treated essentially as a non-nuclear weapon state, which was allowed to keep, perhaps, a small nuclear arsenal in a transitory phase.

A number of former nuclear scientists, including three former chairmen of the Atomic Energy Commission, found, in December 2006, the Hyde Act to be completely unacceptable from India's point of view and at wide variance with the solemn assurances the Prime Minister gave Parliament in August 2006. Indian officials and self-styled strategic experts argued in the media that India was not bound by an American legislation and that it was the 123 agreement with the U.S. that would be binding on it. Some of us, familiar with these matters, questioned this assumption. In a recent statement, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has emphasised once again the importance of the Hyde Act.

During the G8 summit in Germany, the National Security Adviser discussed some of the outstanding issues with his American counterpart Stephen Hadley. India is insisting that its right to reprocess spent fuel of U.S. or other overseas origin be clearly and unambiguously stated in the agreement. If India has to proceed with the second stage fast breeder reactors and thorium-based systems, separating plutonium from spent fuel is an essential prerequisite. India has been separating plutonium from spent fuel for over four decades but it could not reprocess Tarapur spent fuel because the U.S. refused consent, in spite of a specific provision in the Tarapur agreement. In order to break the present deadlock, India has offered to build a safeguarded national facility where U.S. origin fuel could be reprocessed.

The U.S. is likely to suggest that India get spent fuel of imported origin reprocessed in a multinational facility or indeed host a multinational facility, in keeping with its 2006 policies on non-proliferation. Furthermore it may insist that reprocessing conform to its present thinking that plutonium in refined form would not be produced. Instead, the plutonium would be contaminated with nuclear poisons rendering it unsuitable for weapon purposes. Such fuel material can be used in proliferation resistant reactors, which are yet to be developed.

These solutions are completely unacceptable to India. India requires refined plutonium for embarking on fast breeder reactors and thorium-fuelled systems. With India investing substantial resources in fast breeder reactors, any suggestion that reprocessing be outside its full sovereign control is unworthy of consideration.

Another issue is the assurance of fuel supplies for nuclear power plants India may import. In the March 2, 2006, agreement between India and the U.S., New Delhi agreed to place the imported reactors under safeguards in perpetuity only after receiving agreement from Washington that it could build up a stockpile of fuel to tide over supply disruptions.

In the discussions on the draft 123 agreement, Washington has been reiterating that in the event of termination of agreement, the U.S. would have the right to require return of plant and fuel supplied earlier. While return of plant and spent fuel are impractical, return of stockpiled fresh fuel would immobilise the reactors. Such a possibility would even affect securing investment in nuclear power projects in India.

It is unclear if the Indian negotiators have put on the table the possibility of a test by the U.S., China, Pakistan or some other country and the pressures a future government in India would be under to respond suitably. It is not that India wishes to act irresponsibly but its right to respond to such a situation should be recognised.

The Hyde Act suggests that India work with the U.S. on the early conclusion of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. India has in the past favoured an FMCT that is universal, non-discriminatory, and verifiable. The U.S. is objecting to international verification and is insisting on its national verification measures as being the final arbiter. What the U.S. wishes to do is to be an umpire in addition to being a player, which is simply illogical. Whenever an FMCT comes into effect, India must ensure the fissile material in the spent fuel storages is kept outside the treaty and only prospective production is included.

The Hyde Act obligates India to abide by the rules of the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, both in force now and any future amendments thereto. At the same time, there is no suggestion that India would be invited to be a member of the MTCR and the NSG. This is hardly the treatment that a 'strategic partner' expects!

The July 18, 2005, agreement recognises India's exemplary record in non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (and other weapons of mass destruction). The Hyde Act supports cooperation between India and the U.S. on non-proliferation and counter proliferation. India has some reservations on joining U.S. efforts on counter-proliferation, especially when it concerns interception on the high seas.

Universal disarmament

India's well-stated policy is that it believes in universal nuclear disarmament. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi proposed in 1988 a plan for elimination of all nuclear weapons by all countries in a time-bound manner. India must revive this proposal in an updated manner because the only real non-proliferation measure is the elimination of all nuclear weapons world wide. In addition to elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, India should strongly support stopping evolution of new weapons such as behaviour-modifying substances, which may make one's own soldiers ferocious and the enemy's soldiers submissive. Some laboratories in the U.S. and elsewhere are indeed working on these and other weapons and it is high time some sanity is brought back into managing conflicts between nations, and between people.

The Hyde Act also requires India to adjust its foreign policy to be supportive of U.S. polices in a number of areas. When two countries are developing friendly relations over a wide area, it is a legitimate expectation to seek support in areas of concern to one party or the other. However it is unreasonable to expect India to be supportive of U.S. policies across the board; where India's own interests are involved, convergence may not be possible. New Delhi must disabuse Washington of the notion that it can be taken for granted in such matters and stress that India will pursue its own national interest at all times.

The media has discussed various timetables for successfully concluding the 123 agreement, varying from end-2007 to mid-2008. President Bush has taken a personal interest in the India-U.S. civil nuclear cooperation agreement, as indeed has Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Hence it would be good to conclude the agreement when both the principals are in office.

Moreover on the Indian side, there is great urgency to augment electricity production; any stepping up of nuclear power production would be most welcome. In opening up possible import of enriched uranium light water reactors, India must not compromise its strategic programme, its three stage programme leading to thorium utilisation, or its autonomy in nuclear R&D. A timeline that is arbitrary would only put pressure on the Indian negotiators and may lead to an agreement neither acceptable to the Indian people nor in the national interest.

(The writer is a former Chairman, and at present member, of the Atomic Energy Commission.)

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