Originally Published 2006-02-28 12:05:43 Published on Feb 28, 2006
On 25th February, the US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said, ¿We would expect those negotiations will continue by phone, document and the like, probably up through the President¿s visit.¿ The Indo US nuclear deal is not over: it has entered the last few hours of hard bargaining.
Indo-US N-deal: Overcoming the Last Hurdle
On 25th February, the US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said, "We would expect those negotiations will continue by phone, document and the like, probably up through the President's visit." The Indo US nuclear deal is not over: it has entered the last few hours of hard bargaining.

We believe it is President Bush's take now; not of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. With most of the Indian science and strategic community and major political parties having invoked 'national security interest' (three words that are taken more seriously than understood by the Indian political class) there is precious little that Manmohan Singh can do. As it is, he will have to defend hard whatever he signs. Further concessions can turn the issue into a political crisis for the UPA coalition. The 'win win' situation could then become a puerile victory: a political loss for the US President as well as the Indian Prime Minister. If the deal is not signed now, both US and India would not like to touch the issue for a very long time. 

The key remaining issue turning out to be a dampener (if not a deal-breaker) is the separation plan. The US Administration has stated that India must submit a 'credible, transparent and defensible' plan to separate its military facilities from the civilian ones that are to be placed under IAEA safeguards. Apparently, the US hopes to spread its net as wide as possible; beyond what India is prepared to concede. 

The US non-proliferation lobby is pressuring the government to insist that India's Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR) must come under safeguards, as these will be capable of producing Plutonium as a by-product, which could then be used for manufacturing additional nuclear warheads. Indian critics of the deal see this as a backdoor attempt to cap India's fissile material stockpile and as an effort to muzzle India's plans to attain self-sufficiency in generating of nuclear electric power by completing the "third-stage" of its nuclear programme in which the abundantly available Thorium reserves are to be used. Another little-known fact is that U-333, which too is a by-product of fission in FBRs, is a suitable fuel for India's nuclear powered submarine (SSBN) that is being developed under an R&D programme euphemistically called the ATV project.

Led by Dr. Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, a large number of India's former nuclear scientists have gone public with their opposition to the placing of India's FBRs under safeguards. The major issue raised by them is that such a move will compromise India's national security interests. They are also concerned that their research work will be hampered by frequent interference from IAEA inspectors and that India's intellectual property rights over this new technology may be diluted if inspectors monitor every stage of the ongoing research. All of these are legitimate concerns and have been noted by the government. 

Another issue on which there has been a great deal of discussion is whether India has adequate fissile material stocks for meeting the requirement of credible minimum nuclear deterrence. In a dynamic strategic environment, neither the BJP-led NDA government that ordered the nuclear tests in May 1998 nor the Congress-led UPA government can spell out exactly how many warheads India needs for nuclear deterrence today or tomorrow, particularly when neither Beijing nor Islamabad have publicly forsworn to making fissile material for military purposes and freezing/reducing the number of nuclear weapons they deploy. Indian analysts assessment varies widely on the minimum number of nuclear warheads required. Those who are of the view that India has enough fissile material tend to include the 1,000 tons of reactor-grade Plutonium that India has obtained as a by-product from its nuclear power reactors. According to many scientists, this Plutonium is not suitable for nuclear warheads as it is of low quality. It does not produce consistently predictable fission and is relatively more prone to accidents. It is important for the government to create a bipartisan national consensus on this crucial issue. A possible solution lies in offering the FBRs to be placed under safeguards after a decade when the government is satisfied that India has stockpiled a sufficient quantity of fissile material for minimum nuclear deterrence. The July 18th agreement provides for phased separation of civilian and military facilities.

As India's civil and military nuclear programmes did not evolve separately since their inception, the linkages are extremely complex and it is going to be difficult for the scientists to come up with and implement plans for their separation. This is fully appreciated by the international community. 

Draconian nuclear sanctions and technology denial regimes imposed on India for over three decades cannot be undone in a few weeks. In a long-distance race, the last mile is always the hardest. As President Bush has said time and again, it is a win-win deal for both the sides. The N-deal will open up opportunities to shore up India's energy security. It will also become the greatest trust and confidence building measures till date between the oldest and largest democracies of the world. 

For India to continue to grow at about eight per cent per annum, its capacity to generate energy must go up five to six per cent per annum. The Millennium goal was to generate 10,000 MW of nuclear power by the year 2000. India still produces only about 3,500 MW from its nuclear power plants, as much as from wind turbines. Without new sources of advanced nuclear reactors and safeguarded Uranium from abroad India's nuclear energy generation capacity will grow only incrementally. France and Russia have the technology and are ready to supply large-sized nuclear reactors like the 1,650 MW EPRs (European Power Reactors), which are state-of-the-art. President Chirac of France has already expressed his support for the agreement and his country's eagerness to begin nuclear trade with India under NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) guidelines once the USA gives the green signal.

Perhaps no other major foreign policy and national security issue has been so widely debated recently as the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation Agreement of July 18, 2005. Even though the debate has been partly conducted on partisan political lines, generating more heat than light, it is indicative of the gradual maturing of Indian democracy. It is to be hoped that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's statement in Parliament on February 27th will put an end to the unseemly controversies within India. While some differences of perception are still to be ironed out, there is still hope that the agreement will be signed, sealed and delivered during President Bush's visit in early March. 

The authors are President and Director respectively of the Institute of Security Studies, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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