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Why Indian scientists are upset about the nuclear deal

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June 29, 2006 15:18 IST

Dr A N Prasad, a former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, reveals why the Indian scientific community is worked up about the India-United States nuclear agreement.

The bill on the India-United States nuclear deal now with the US Congress has left no doubt about the US intention to achieve the twin objective of capping the Indian strategic programme and gaining near total access to its nuclear establishment through International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards inspections.

The sugar-coated language used in the July 18 India-US Joint Statement has lifted India to the status of an advanced State to be treated at par with other advanced States like the US. But the ground reality is such that the US calls the shots, leaving India on the defensive in spite of projecting the deal as of vital interest to the US.

There is certainly lot of apprehension among the Indian scientific community in general -- apart from top scientists within India's nuclear establishment who are forced to support the deal -- as to whether adequate homework has been done in analysing the pros and cons about how the deal serves India's long-term interests.

The views of Indian scientists do not seem to have reached Indian lawmakers and a clear direction is lacking. Political and scientific interests have to converge for a deal of this nature, which has long-term national security implications.

This matter is too serious for the government to take a decision without an in-depth debate, and in a hush-hush manner without revealing the various conditions involved. What the knowledgeable public in India is exposed to is bits and pieces of information -- that too, trickling from the US!

A major weakness faced by India, in the short and perhaps in the medium term, is the shortage of natural uranium required to push its nuclear power programme from the present 2 per cent to something respectable.

India seems to be paying a heavy price for this weakness. Having developed full technological competence in the entire nuclear fuel cycle -- in spite of sustained embargoes and restrictions -- it is not so much the technological know-how that India is looking forward to from abroad, as many seem to think, but a rightful place to play a global role in the nuclear field commercially and technologically.

There is so much that India can offer to the global effort for peaceful application of nuclear energy but it is a pity it is being looked upon with suspicion. Conditions of a different kind are being imposed while grudgingly taking India on as a partner.

Coming back to the bill in the Congress, there are a few clauses which are detrimental to Indian interests. It calls for India, Pakistan and China declaring a moratorium on the production of fissile material for nuclear explosive purposes. If India were to agree to this it will be at a disadvantage vis-à-vis China in terms of stockpile and not serve national strategic interests.

Similarly, the bill talks about implementation of a treaty with the US as a partner banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. This is a big joke. While the US suffers from indigestion with excess fissile material, not knowing what to do with it, it wants India to prematurely shut shop. What a nice way to cap India's nuclear programme before it has even properly taken off! There are also some other conditions in the bill which tend to interfere with our independent national policy.

Perhaps the sticking point in this nuclear deal is the safeguards agreement. At present, the International Atomic Energy Agency has no format or mandate to negotiate an agreement with India which accommodates the country's strategic nuclear applications. The formats in force apply broadly to Nuclear Weapon States and Non-Nuclear Weapon States party to the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty with some States accepting intrusive additional protocol.

India, Pakistan and Israel being non-NPT states are following item specific safeguards. As far as India is concerned, the deal will totally change this situation as it will be treated as a non Nuclear Weapon State with additional protocol leading to a lot of contradictions and difficulties both in the negotiations and later implementation.

It is very unlikely that the IAEA will negotiate a new agreement outside the existing mandate and go to the IAEA board of governors for approval which is a major task by itself. Realising this, the US bill has been cleverly worded to the effect that the American president's determination is required to the effect that an agreement has been concluded between India and the IAEA requiring the application of IAEA safeguards in perpetuity in accordance with IAEA principles, practices and policies to India's nuclear facilities, materials and programmes.

To make matters worse, India's nuclear programmes are also sought to be brought under safeguards under the additional protocol. Where does this lead regarding the India- specific safeguards which India was elated about? There is no doubt that safeguards negotiations will be the toughest part of the deal requiring a high level of skill, foresight and care.

To a large extent, the deal will undermine the pride with which Indian nuclear scientists of the past and present developed highly complex nuclear technology under heavy odds. India will be slowly forced to become dependent on imports with practically the entire gamut of activities coming under safeguards inspection with a miniscule of activities left under the strategic category.

Dr A N Prasad