NEW DELHI, Dec 19 2006 (IPS) — While President George W. Bush has signed into law new legislation passed by Congress to enable the controversial U.S.-India nuclear cooperation deal, the agreement has come under flak in India’s Parliament and a massive confrontation has broken out between its supporters and opponents.
The supporters say the deal offers India the best chance to get its nuclear weapons status accepted and legitimised by the great powers even if it compromises India’s sovereignty. According to them, the deal also holds the key to India’s long-term energy security.
Most of the deal’s critics claim that Washington has ”shifted the original goalposts” agreed in July last year and imposed conditions on India calculated to cap its nuclear arsenal and limit India’s freedom to pursue nuclear power generation the way it likes.
Neither side is particularly worried at the likely consequences of the deal in encouraging the spread of nuclear weapons or further weakening the already-fragile global nuclear order.
Yet, the opponents have put the Manmohan Singh government on the defensive. It has pledged that it will not allow India’s sovereign interests to be compromised.
Meanwhile, former top scientists and engineers of India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) have emerged as the deal’s most trenchant critics. Whether or not the government can ‘sell’ the deal to the larger public will depend to a large extent on its success with this lobby of nuclear super-hawks.
The outcome of the current debate is likely to substantially influence the shape of the next stage in the process of the deal’s finalisation: namely, a bilateral agreement between Washington and New Delhi, called the ”123 agreement” because it will amend Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954 pertaining to ”cooperation with other nations” to permit civilian nuclear commerce with India although it’s a nuclear weapons power which has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The high-pitched debate over the deal, in particular, over the legislation called the Henry J. Hyde U.S.-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006, passed by the U.S. Congress 10 days ago, is being conducted largely in the media.
The Hyde Act restricts the scope of nuclear commerce with India and makes it conditional upon certain steps to be taken by India and upon periodic certification by the US President that it’s complying with the conditions.
India’s national newspapers are sharply divided over the deal and are roping in all manner of ”experts”, ”authorities” and officials to argue in its favour or to criticise it. Several are running a campaign or crusade for or against it.
Underlying these differences are other fault-lines too. These include rivalry between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry, on the one hand, and the nuclear establishment, on the other; and divisions between those who want India to align itself completely with Washington, and those who prefer a degree of foreign policy autonomy.
The deal’s supporters contend that the Hyde Act does not impose any new special restrictions on India, or that the conditions it stipulates, for instance, that India must not conduct further nuclear tests, have long been part of U.S. law. Some even concede that the deal reflects the asymmetry of power between India and the U.S.; but ”it can’t get any better than this”.
”This is a pretty abject admission that the nuclear deal is inseparably tied to a larger agenda, of promoting a strategic partnership between India and the U.S.,” says Achin Vanaik, a professor of international relations and global politics at Delhi University. ”It was proposed by the Americans in the first place because they want India as a junior partner in their global system of alliances. It’s dishonest to depict it as a deal about energy.”
Adds Vanaik: ”The ruling Indian elite craves recognition and approval from the U.S. And the nuclear deal provides it by making a special exception for India and declaring it a ‘responsible nuclear power’ – as if states willing to kill millions of non-combatant civilians can ever be responsible.”
Some supporters of the deal argue that without it, India would have no access to imported uranium, without which it cannot run its ambitious nuclear power programme, which aims at a five-fold increase in electricity generation to 20,000 Mw by 2020: India is running out of domestic uranium ore, and cannot import uranium unless sanctions imposed after its nuclear blasts of 1998 are lifted.
”This is the DAE’s self-created problem,” holds MV Ramana, an independent nuclear affairs expert at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore. ”It has always set arbitrary targets which have never been reached. And it hasn’t established that nuclear power is economically competitive or ecologically sound. In fact, it’s neither in India’s case. There’s nothing sacrosanct, even convincing, about 20,000 Mw or the much larger 275,000 Mw goal that the DAE has declared for the mid-century.”
Besides, adds Ramana: ”India, strictly speaking, isn’t running out of uranium, but only out of relatively high-quality ore. Mining lower-grade ores will increase the cost, but Indian will still have access to uranium. The deal isn’t a precondition for access.”
The deal’s critics make many arguments against the Hyde Act. First, it excludes from civilian cooperation technologies for spent-fuel reprocessing, uranium enrichment and heavy water production, and does not allow India to stockpile strategic reserves of fuel to last the lifetimes of imported reactors.
Secondly, they contend, the Hyde Act mandates India’s participation with the U.S. in cooperative nuclear threat reduction through the involvement of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration and other agencies, as also India’s compliance with certain plurilateral arms-trade restriction agreements which India has not signed. These obligations, they say, go well beyond International Atomic Energy Agency norms and ”constitute [an] intrusion into India’s independent decision-making and policy matters”.
The third, and perhaps most important, objection of the critics, especially former DAE officials, is that the Act forces India to abandon its ”right to conduct future nuclear weapon tests, if these are found necessary to strengthen our minimum deterrence.”
This represents a considerable hardening of the nucleocrats’ position: after the 1998 tests, most of them did not object to India’s declaration of a unilateral moratorium on further testing although it was widely recognised that India’s hydrogen bomb test was a dud. Only one former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission called for further testing.
Now, seven former DAE top officials, including two other former chairmen, demand that India preserve the ”right” to test.
”These are all parochial and sectarian pleas for a limitless Indian nuclear arsenal, which has nothing to do with strategic rationality or with the so-called doctrine of minimum credible deterrence that India professes,” says Vanaik. ”There’s no reason why the international community should accept them.”
Equally flawed is the insistence on India’s right to reprocess spent fuel burned in imported reactors because that’s essential for its fast-breeder programme. These plants, theoretically, generate more fissile material (nuclear fuel such as plutonium) than they consume. India has drawn up plans to use the additional plutonium in special reactors for burning thorium, a nuclear material that does not readily fission. (India and has large stocks of thorium, but is short of uranium.)
Argues Ramana: ”Fast-breeders have not proved successful anywhere, certainly not in India, which has only experimented with a small laboratory-sized reactor, with poor results. As for the thorium cycle, it is as of now science fiction. Our calculations show that electricity from fast breeders will be so expensive that it would be better to run normal reactors with uranium that’s five times costlier than it is today.”
However, the nuclear establishment is asserting itself strongly against the deal. Last Friday, the DAE chief convened a meeting in Mumbai of former senior officials. They issued a hawkish statement savaging the Hyde Act and demanding that Manmohan Singh’s assurances about the deal be reflected in the 123 agreement, which is currently under negotiation.
”Of the political opposition and the nucleocrats’ lobby, it’s the lobby that’s clearly more important for the government to tackle,” says Vanaik. ”If the government manages to split the lobby, it might still win relatively broad acceptance for the deal. Otherwise, opinion will remain polarised.”