India’s changing nuclear status

The deal with the USA allowed much expansion

India’s nuclear power is expected to undergo a significant expansion in the coming years in part due to the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement. This agreement will allow India to carry out trade of nuclear fuel and technologies with other countries and significantly enhance its power generation capacity.

The international trade in nuclear material, equipment and technology is largely determined by the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG), an informal group of 45 countries. Members include the USA, Russia, France and the United Kingdom. India has been kept out of this informal arrangement and therefore denied access to trade in nuclear materials, equipment and various kinds of technologies. Nuclear technology provides a plentiful and non-polluting source of power to meet its energy needs. To increase the share of nuclear power in its energy mix, India needs to break out of the confines imposed by inadequate reserves of natural uranium, and by international embargoes that have constrained its nuclear programme for over three decades.

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In the circumstances, India made a Civil Nuclear Agreement with the USA on 18 July 2005 to overcome the growing energy deficit. The essence of what was agreed in Washington was a shared understanding of India’s growing energy needs. As a result of the understanding reached between the two countries, the USA had committed itself to a series of steps to enable bilateral and international cooperation in nuclear energy. These include adjusting domestic policies, and working with allies to adjust relevant international regimes. There was also a positive mention of possible fuel supply to the first two nuclear power reactors at Tarapur. US support was also indicated for India’s inclusion as a fuel partner in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Research Project and the Generation-IV International Forum. Surely, the nuclear understanding with the USA has created a great opportunity for international cooperation in the area.

One view within the Indian defence establishment considered that the deal “has for all practical purposes capped Indian ability to field-test and proof high-yield nuclear weapons till sometime in future when Indian three-stage nuclear fuel cycle-based on thorium fuel matures into mainstream power production, thus eliminating Indian dependence on imported nuclear fuel from NSG countries.

In favour and against there was a large amount of opinions and analyses of nuclear experts about the Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation with the USA. Ashley J. Tellis, a US analyst argued that the Indo-US nuclear was attractive to India because it gave it access to far more options on its civil nuclear programme than would otherwise be the case, primarily by ending its isolation from the international nuclear community. These options included access to latest technologies, access to higher unit output reactors which are more economical, access to global finance for building reactors, ability to export its indigenous smaller reactor size, pressurised heavy-water reactors, better information flow for its research community, and many more. Finally, the deal also gives India two options that are relatively independent from the three-stage programme, at least in terms of their dependencies on success or failure. The first option is that India can opt to stay with the first-stage reactors as long as the global supply of uranium lasts.

The plus side of this is that it covers any risk from short-term delays or failures in implementing the three-stage programme. On the negative side, this is an option that is antithetical to the underlying objective of energy independence through the exploitation of thorium. Also, according to one foreign analyst, the deal could over time result in India being weaned away from its three-phase nuclear programme involving fast bredeer reactors and advanced pressurized heavy-water reactors. This would occur if India becomes confident that it would assure supplies of relatively cheap natural uranium, including from Australia. In any case, this distant possibility cannot be ruled out.

The Indian commentators, including Anil Kakodkar, the then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Indian government’s official position and Indian defence establishment, have consciously welcomed the nuclear deal. Most of the Indian commentators have found in it an opportunity for India that would enable the country to end its international isolation on the nuclear front and obtain a de facto acknowledgement of it as a nuclear state to some degree. In addition to it being able to obtain the uranium that would increase the success potential of its three-stage programme, as well as its efforts to build a “minimum credible nuclear deterrent.

Anil Kakodkar made the comment publicly in a milder and conscious way keeping the country’s indigenous fast breeder programme out  of the ambit of international safeguards, saying, ‘in the long run’ the energy that will come out from  the  nuclear fuel resources available in India should always come from the larger share of the nuclear energy programme…..and, our strategy should be such that the integrity and autonomy of our being  able  to develop the three- stage nuclear power programme, be  maintained; we cannot compromise that.”

The Indian government, on various occasions, reiterated its position clearly that India’s indigenous three-stage programme is unaffected by the Indo-US nuclear deal and its full autonomy has been preserved. However, one view within the Indian defence establishment considered that the deal “has for all practical purposes capped Indian ability to field-test and proof high-yield nuclear weapons till sometime in future when Indian three-stage nuclear fuel cycle-based on thorium fuel matures into mainstream power production, thus eliminating Indian dependence on imported nuclear fuel from NSG countries. Likewise, both right and left-wing political parties opposed the deal in the Parliament.The left feared the deal would make the country subservient to US interests, while the right felt it would limit further nuclear testing.

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After being exempted from NSGs restrictions, India had also signed nuclear agreements with Mongolia, Namibia, Argentina, Kazakhstan and South Korea. With Mongolia. India signed a crucial civil nuclear agreement on 15h June 2009 for the supply of uranium to India, during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Mongoli,a making it the fifth nation in the world to seal a civil nuclear pact with India. The Memorandum of Understanding on development of cooperation in the field of peaceful uses of radioactive minerals and nuclear energy was signed by senior officials in the department of atomic energy of the two countries. The five agreements signed on 2 September 2009, including one on civil nuclear energy which allows for supply of uranium from the African country Namibia, which is the fifth largest producer of uranium in the world. The Indo-Namibian agreement in peaceful uses of nuclear energy allows for supply of uranium and setting up of reactors. India signed two agreements with Argentina and   Canada, on civil nuclear cooperation, on 14 October 2009, and 28 June 2010, respectively. On 6 November 2012, India and Canada finalised their 2010 nuclear export agreement, opening the way for Canada to begin uranium exports to India. On 16 April 2011 and 25 July 2011, India signed nuclear cooperation agreements with Kazakistan and South Korea respectively for peaceful uses of atomic energy and participation in India’s nuclear expansion programme.

Dr Rajkumar Singh
Dr Rajkumar Singh
The writer is head of the political science department of the B.N.Mandal University, Madhepura, Bihar, India and can be reached at [email protected]

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