Ever since the prime minister returned from his recent visit to the US, after agreeing to a tentative framework for civilian nuclear co-operation between the two countries, he has been at the receiving end of a great deal of criticism from the Opposition parties and some of the former senior scientists of our nuclear weapons program.
Both India and the US are democracies, and the legally binding bilateral agreements based on this framework will definitely require legislative approval in both countries. In India, these will have to be discussed and approved by Parliament before they can be internationally binding. No prime minister has any authority under our system to enter into such "agreements" unilaterally and Dr Manmohan Singh has certainly not done any such thing. So, what is all the clamour about?
The weapon scientists claim that the military and civilian nuclear facilities cannot be delineated separately. This is blatantly wrong, based on what was already done during the Vajpayee government's tenure.
The DAE [Department of Atomic Energy] themselves have done it in 2000, when they wanted to avoid any independent safety regulation of the AERB [Atomic Energy Regulatory Board] on the weapons activities, and there was a Gazette Notification issued in this regard in July 2000. If the DAE could do it then under the previous government, what is the problem in merely updating that exercise in 2005?
Every scientist in the DAE system must remain conscious that India's nuclear program and the DAE itself were not created for conducting nuclear weapons development. Almost all of them have this awareness deeply ingrained in them, except the few privileged ones who work on hush-hush weapons programmes.
The primary purpose of a nuclear program in this developing country, run at an enormous expenditure to the tax payer, is to provide nuclear electricity and other civilian benefits to all of us. Somewhere along the road, in mid-1960s, the nuclear weapon scientists succeeded in relegating this main objective to a lower priority and instead elevated weapon development as DAE's prestigious, but unspoken, first task.
It is time we reverse the priority back to Jawaharlal Nehru's and [Dr Homi] Bhabha's original vision of nuclear energy, while we can all still continue to support a modest nuclear weapons programme.
Under the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards which will be applicable to India as per this framework, India can choose and give a list of civilian facilities, on which alone the IAEA safeguards will then be applied. If the weapons group feels strongly that they need to keep under their control certain limited number of extra facilities, by all means exclude them from the civilian list!
The IAEA, under this agreement, certainly cannot demand that India should stop its fast breeder reactor (FBR) work, as alleged by some. Also, any safeguards inspection of a facility can only be for the IAEA to ascertain that nuclear materials and support equipment, etc imported by India under the new arrangement is not being diverted out of the safeguarded facilities. Indian authorities can outright refuse any other inspection or intrusion beyond what is mutually agreed as essential for the IAEA to meet this specific inspection objective.
The ideas of a "minimum nuclear deterrent" and a "voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing" were first put in place by the Vajpayee government after 1998, on the advice of the very same weapon scientists who are now criticising the current prime minister. Once you keep certain installations outside the "civilian" list, the framework has not given any license for the US or the IAEA to probe into what we are doing within those installations.
If these weapon scientists feel, and our government agrees, that they must proceed on to develop megaton thermonuclear weapons, neither the US government nor the IAEA can stop them because of this new framework. But, our weapon developers cannot test any of those new designs, since the moratorium on weapon testing readily agreed to by Mr Vajpayee and these very same scientists in 1998 will still stand binding. What good are such weapons to the armed forces in the country, without their being tested even once?
Healthy and constructive debate of the current issues will be welcomed by all in this country and it is also quite necessary. But, it is politically and professionally unethical to undercut, through misinformation and speculation, a potentially path-breaking initiative which the prime minister has taken, which could be shaped, with constructive co-operation among various factions in the country, into a revised package of national and international policies greatly beneficial to India.
The author is a former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. He holds a Doctorate degree in Nuclear Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley