The nuclear deal, raising quite a storm in India as well as the world, has now been signed. Scientists, strategists and politicians clamoured to both sides across the world as the deal went through intense scrutiny in India, at the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG), at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the US Houses of Parliament and of course, the media.

Oddly enough, the deal hardly worth the hullabaloo it has raised. There can hardly be a deal that goes more down the middle than this one – at least what has been announced publicly. On paper, 14 of India’s 22 reactors come under full-scope safeguards (the material and its derivatives). This leaves seven for “other” purposes. These facilities that are outside the purview shall remain so, without any interference. This means that India still has a free hand in its own nuclear research, and if necessary, weapons programme.

Anti-Indian critics of the deal argue that the deal sets a precedent for other rogue nations to manufacture a bomb and then expect to be let into the international community without consequences. The deal does not demand that India sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or even the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). With Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran waiting in the wings—and possibly (but unlikely) Israel—the Indian nuclear agreement sounds the death knell for non-dissemination efforts. These critics also point out that any supply of foreign fuel to India’s nuclear reactors, even ones under safeguards, will free precious domestic uranium for weapons manufacture, thus indirectly aiding India’s nuclear weapons programme. According to Sukla Sen of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, “The agreement is fatally flawed because it is part of a larger deal that allows India to keep its nuclear arsenal and make more fuel for nuclear weapons. It detracts from the objectives of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, and will have a negative global impact.” Joseph Cirincione of Ploughshares and the Center for American Progress asserted that “the deal endorses and assists India’s nuclear-weapons program. U.S.-supplied uranium fuel would free up India’s limited uranium reserves for fuel that otherwise would be burned in these reactors to make nuclear weapons.” It is therefore feared that the production capacity of the Indian nuclear arsenal would be considerably increased. India may even conduct further nuclear tests given their newly rejuvenated nuclear industry despite what the Government of India claimed. After all, it had claimed that India was not interested in the military aspects of nuclear technology since 1947 and had yet carried out six tests, one in 1974 and five in 1998. Opponents also argue that after a few years of absorbing new technology and building up sufficient fuel reserves, India can then opt out of the deal and reap its benefits. It may even resume its weapons programme.

Indian critics, not surprisingly, say the exact opposite. They claim that the agreement does not give India parity with the five declared nuclear powers, the Big Five if you will, and is thus a clever ruse to get India to accept the NPT through a backdoor. They also maintain that safeguards will interfere with India’s peaceful nuclear aspirations—one is reminded of the famous quip about peaceful nuclear warheads and MIRVs here—and also hamper India’s nuclear weapons programme if it chooses to pursue one. Indians are also worried that the West and the US in particular, will have an unhealthy influence on Indian nuclear policy by controlling the supply of fuel as has been India’s experience with Tarapur. The Communist Parties in India, however, are locked in an ideological rift left over from the Cold War still, and do not wish to see India drift so close to an imperialist power.

The reality of the matter is far from either of these extreme views, as is usually the case. And typical of subcontinental history, there is a unique twist in India’s nuclear programme that exists in no other programme in the world. Leaving aside the politics, let us consider the raw data—what the deal promises and what it delivers. But first, let us have a quick overview of the structure of the Indian nuclear programme (you can post in the comments if you want a history of nuclear weapons an power and/or political analysis).

The Indian nuclear programme is unique in that India is the only country that has seriously considered thorium-based reactors for power generation. This is largely due to the fact that India has scanty uranium supplies but the world’s largest thorium reserves. As a result, not to have a strategic dependency, the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) under the leadership of Homi J. Bhabha decided to implement a three-stage nuclear programme. In Stage 1, natural uranium would be used as fuel and a Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) would produce plutonium 239 (Pu-239) as a by-product. In Stage 2, Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs) would use the Pu-239 as fuel to produce uranium 233 (U-233) and thorium 232 (Th-232). In the final stage, Stage 3, a Fast Thorium Breeder Reactor (FTBR), such as the one at Kalpakkam that went critical in 1996 (Kamini) will be used to generate power.

Power reactors of today mostly use U-235, whose fission releases energy and extra neutrons that maintain the chain reaction. But only seven out of 1,000 atoms of naturally occurring uranium are of this type. The rest are fertile, meaning they cannot fission but can be converted into fissionable plutonium by neutrons released by U-235. Thorium, which occurs naturally, is another fertile element that can be turned by neutrons into U-233, another uranium isotope. U-233 is the only other known fissionable material, sometimes referred to as the “third fuel”. Thorium is three times more abundant in the earth’s crust than uranium but was never inducted into reactors because – unlike uranium – it has no fissionable atoms to start the chain reaction.

But once the world’s uranium runs out, thorium – and the depleted uranium discharged by today’s power reactors – could form the fertile base for nuclear power generation. The FTBR is one such candidate reactor that can produce energy from these two fertile materials with some help from fissile plutonium as a seed to start the fire. By using a judicious mix of seed plutonium and fertile zones inside the core, the design can breed not one but two nuclear fuels – U-233 from thorium and plutonium from depleted uranium – within the same reactor.

As even a village idiot can plainly see, the problem for international proliferation watchdogs is fissile plutonium, the element behind most of India’s—and the world’s—nuclear bombs. Although more complex to use than uranium, it is far cheaper (because of the prohibitive costs of gaseous diffusion for uranium enrichment) and hence the preferred choice for a weapons programme. Supplying India with safeguarded fuel means that India can use its own unsafeguarded uranium to manufacture more plutonium and hence more bombs while safeguarded stocks provide for power. Plutonium, the by-product for the first stage, is shipped back to the country that supplied the uranium by most countries, or sold to depositories such as Russia, the UK or the US. In India’s case, the plutonium is required to fuel the second stage and ignite the third, making the dangerous element an essential part of the extended fuel cycle. On the other side of the fence, Indian nationalists fear that by putting two thirds of the Indian nuclear establishment under safeguards, the Indian Congress (I) Government under Manmohan Singh is selling out India’s strategic interests by severely curtailing the ability to produce weapons-grade material if it so chooses.

Dr. Ashley J. Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) points out that India’s uranium reserves are more than sufficient for its military and civilian programs. “The present shortage of uranium fuel aris
es from bottlenecks in mining and milling capacity… as a result of decisions made under pressures of fiscal necessity by the government of India in the early 1990s.” New facilities, not dependent in any way upon the deal and already in the pipeline, mean that current shortages will be transitory. Nuclear material or equipment exported by the United States (or others) under the deal with India would not be directly involved in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Trellis argues that imports of any energy source could relieve India of the uranium limits on its military program just as effectively as assistance to their civil nuclear program.

Worries about fuel interruptions and the NSG holding India’s power and nuclear industries hostage are also unfounded. Under the current terms of the deal if India were to experience unwarranted disruptions in the supply of fuel to its safeguarded civil nuclear energy establishments, the IAEA would assist and take legal recourse and India would have the right to suspend its safeguards. The preamble to the agreement talks of India’s right under the deal to “reliable, uninterrupted and continuous access to fuel supplies from companies in several nations, as well as support for an Indian effort to develop a strategic reserve of nuclear fuel to guard against any disruption of supply over the lifetime of India’s reactors.” Articles 52(c), 29, 30 (f), and 4) provide additional clarification. India is also reserving the right to amend or adjust the list of safeguarded facilities, or to delay the application of safeguards, depending on India’s access to the international fuel market, as outlined in the preamble. Any guarantee of assured fuel supplies would nevertheless be a bilateral matter between India and the supplier. The wording here is ambiguous, some claiming that India can unilaterally withdraw from the treaty, while others claim that the conditions allowing India to withdraw are clearly demarcated. This could be a thorny issue in the future, but right now it has been relegated to backrooms or under the carpet as international concerns such as GE Energy, USEC, Westinghouse Electric, Areva NP SAS, Atomenergoproekt, and ZAO Atomstroyexport are hungering for a slice of India’s $100 billion nuclear pie – apart from fuel, technical assistance, upgrades and maintenance, India is set to order another 30 nuclear reactors over the next ten years.

Some privileges afforded to the nuclear weapon states will not be granted. Inter-changeability of nuclear establishments kept under civilian or military designation, available to recognized NPT nuclear weapon states, is not given to India – they will not be able to switch reactors. The governing additional protocol, as and when it is negotiated, may include safeguards provisions applicable to non-weapon states. The United States has certain unique rights in the name of its ‘national security interest’ in the agreement with the IAEA, while China has the right to decline an additional protocol. By agreeing to place India’s nuclear facilities under the safeguards, it would be an irreversible process.

However, the deal is, in my opinion, not so much about fuel but about access to international technology. With the advent of the FTBR, India can perhaps manage without uranium shipments from foreign sources. However, India would do well to receive reactor and other technologies that its scientists can then learn from. Since the facilities are under safeguard and not the manpower, it is inevitable that some of the know-how will trickle through to other applications. Furthermore, India’s existing nuclear facilities can certainly do with a refit. As to the question of further testing, more and more, nations are moving towards computer modelling – further testing may not be required. The nuclear deal explicitly states that it will be abrogated in the case of an Indian nuclear test. If the need arises (if India has insufficient data for computer simulations), if the gains justify the costs, India can always act as a sovereign nation in defence of its interests.

In any case, in a changed world, where China is making strategic agreements to buy uranium from Canada and Australia for long-term energy security, India can ill-afford to turn down the opportunities striking its doors. The basic reason why thorium is ignored world over is that it has to be externally fed with some man-made fissile material like plutonium to be ignited and start producing power. If India on its own wanted to accumulate sufficient plutonium for its fast breeder programme and the thorium reactor research, it has to wait for at least 30 years. On the other hand, the Indo-US deal provides India a window of opportunity to get the plutonium and build thorium reactors today.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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