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Do we need the nuclear deal with the US?

By Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (retd)
Last updated on: July 26, 2005 11:41 IST
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The new nuclear bargain means different things to different people, both here and in the United States -- a case of the elephant and the blind men!

Dire consequences to our national security are forecast by our strategic community because we would have access to nuclear power trade and international cooperation.

So the first question that we must address is: Why do we need international cooperation in nuclear power, and what would be the bargain?

To begin with, we all know how deficient the country is in total energy as well in electricity. We have a lot of coal, but it has a very high content of ash (which requires technology and capital to improve it) and is a serious environmental problem. Meanwhile we import better quality of coal from Australia.

The nuclear deal

With the rising consumption in the country, we will be importing over 90 per cent of our oil and gas needs in a few years, mostly from unstable regions to the west of us. This has its own vulnerabilities. Oil prices have soared in the past two years and are likely to keep hovering around $60 per barrel with obvious negative impact on our economy.

Energy deficient countries like Japan, France etc had to rapidly build nuclear power capacity after the oil shock of 1973. China now is building its nuclear power base from near-zero capacity to 40,000MW of electricity by 2020.

We have an ambitious plan to build 20,000MW of nuclear power by 2020. But our indigenous uranium reserves can support, at best, a capacity of only 10,000MW!

A good deal

If we want to increase our nuclear power capacity to even the targeted figure, we will need to import fuel for decades till the fast-breeder reactors are able to take over.

The NDA government was fully cognisant of this, and that is why it had included 'nuclear energy' as the first item for cooperation with the United States under the NSSP (Next Steps in Strategic Partnership) agreed upon in January 2004 by then prime minister Vajpayee and negotiated by then National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, which have been praised so much and for which they took so much credit -- only to slam it now that those steps are moving forward!

The second big question is: Does this agreement jeopardise our national security?

Continuation of pro-US shift: Left parties

Enhancing nuclear power availability in the country would actually enhance national security since it would help economy to grow, reduce poverty and build national comprehensive power. What is less known here is that nuclear power now has become the most economical, most environmental friendly and most reliable form of energy among various types available for commercial use.

But there is no way we can access international cooperation, especially fuel for reactors, without some adjustments in our policies. What we are expected to do beyond the traditional policy of the country is that

i. We will assume all responsibilities and practices (and acquire same benefits and advantages) as other nuclear weapon states like the United States;

ii. we will separate civil and military nuclear facilities and programmes in a 'phased manner' and 'voluntarily' place them under IAEA inspections;

iii. sign and adhere to an Additional Protocol with IAEA covering such civilian nuclear facilities.

Third, what would be the implications, especially for our nuclear deterrence capabilities?

The loudest objections in the country have been that separation of civilian facilities from the military facilities would undermine our nuclear defence capability. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

India-US: The blunt truth

We have never had any problem with placing civil nuclear power reactors under IAEA inspection system (Tarapur was voluntarily placed under such inspection in 1993 when our treaty obligations expired). The two Russian supplied reactors near Chennai are under IAEA inspections, and so are the Kota reactors.

The point is that we have an efficient autonomous capability to manufacture nuclear weapons and the facilities for this all would obviously not be placed under any international oversight. But the civil nuclear power reactors built with any international cooperation component would have to be under IAEA inspection and it is crazy to claim that this jeopardises our security.

President Bush has given up the long-held US demand for India becoming a non-nuclear weapon state and in fact put India at par with the US in this respect for nuclear energy cooperation.

Fourth, would this agreement go through, and if not, would it then leave us high and dry with commitments that regress from our present positions and capabilities?

There is no doubt that Bush would find it an uphill task to get the necessary legal authority and international concurrence to the proposal. But he also has the bulk of his second term ahead of him.

US lawmakers say N-deal will be a tough-sell

A joint working group to progress this agreement has already been set up, and senior US officials have been speaking to Congress and US allies. First reactions are fairly positive and 100 Senators and Congressmen at a convention of the Indian American Friendship Council the other day have promised to make the nuclear deal a reality.

President Bush and Prime Minister Singh will meet early next year to review the progress, and the personal role of the US president would matter greatly. If for any reasons the new enterprise does not go through, India still gains by being labelled as a 'responsible State with advanced nuclear technology' (read 'State with nuclear weapons'). Surely, that is not something that we should be complaining about?

Fifth, what does the US get out of what is obviously a major shift in its policy?

Indo-US nuclear treaty: A good deal

The answer to this lies in the macro picture of global trends.

The obvious incentive is the burgeoning market (growing at an impressive rate) of a liberal democracy of over a billion people. But the second Bush administration is also seeking to re-orient its grand strategy after experiencing the negative fall-out from its first tenure. It is badly bogged down in Iraq while it is unable to get enough recruits for its army. Central Asian leaders are seeking its military withdrawal from the region at an early date.

But above all, Washington is finally beginning to readjust its strategy in the context of what has come to be accepted as the 'rise of China.' New tensions have been building in US-China relations in recent months. High-level Chinese generals have been publicly threatening America with 'hundreds of its cities' being burned by Chinese nuclear weapons if there is US-supported conflict over Taiwan.

N-deal no compromise: Saran

Above all, there has been a growing realisation of a global power shift from the West to the East, where China stands out as the rising superpower. The US National Intelligence Council in its projection for the next 15 years raised the issue of how the US would manage the rise of China and India in the coming decade.

By any logic, a successful and prosperous India would be a natural balance to China even while the two remain friendly; and strong India-US relations are crucial to Bush's stated goal of supporting India's rise to global power status. But the nuclear and the contradictory policies of the two have been at the core of their divergences for three decades.

Without finding a way out --- or around them --- the relationship would continue to be severely limited.

Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (retd) is one of India's leading experts on strategic issues. 

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Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (retd)