Illustration: Bilash Rai / Himal Southasian September 2006
Illustration: Bilash Rai / Himal Southasian September 2006

The price of power

Even as Washington lawmakers give their blessing to the historic — and illegal — Indo-US nuclear deal, few involved are addressing the most crucial issue: does India need nuclear power at all?

It has been just over one year since President George W Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a joint statement opening up the possibility of a resumption of full US and international nuclear aid to India. Such international support had been key to India's original development of its nuclear infrastructure and capabilities, and was essentially blocked after the country's 1974 nuclear weapons test. New Delhi's subsequent refusal to give up its nuclear weapons and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or otherwise open its nuclear facilities to international inspection has kept it largely outside the system of regulated transfer, trade and monitoring of nuclear technology developed over the last three decades.

Both New Delhi and Washington are lobbying hard for the necessary legislative approval of the deal from the US Congress, and for the blessing of the 45 countries who are members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which controls almost all international trade in these technologies. The deal has already passed through two Congressional commitees, as well as a vote by the full House of Representatives. With a final vote in the US Senate slated for September, in mid-August Prime Minister Singh went on the offensive against strident domestic criticism, emphasising that whatever restrictions the new US policy will have for Indian nuclear-weapons testing, "there is no question of India being bound by a law passed by a foreign legislature."

The 2005 agreement requires the US to amend its own laws and policies on nuclear technology transfer, as well as to work for changes in international controls on the supply of nuclear fuel and technology so as to allow "full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India". In exchange, New Delhi would identify and separate its civilian nuclear facilities and programmes from its nuclear weapons complex, and would volunteer the former for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection and safeguarding. Yet, as they consider the deal and ways to transform its broad framework into legal reality, the political elites in each country have ignored some crucial issues.

Policy analysts in the US have fiercely debated the wisdom of the Indo-US deal, but the discussion has been rather narrow. Confined to proliferation-policy experts and a few interested members of Congress, the discussion has largely focused on the lack of details in the deal, the order of the various steps to be taken by the respective governments, and the potential consequences for US nonproliferation policy. The larger policy context of a long-standing effort to co-opt India as a US client, and thereby sustain and strengthen US power (especially with regard to China), has gone unchallenged. There is also little recognition of how the agreement could allow India to expand its nuclear arsenal.

In India, the deal has incited a wider debate on questions of national security, sovereignty, development and democracy. But there has been little attention paid to whether India needs nuclear weapons at all, the costly failures of the Indian nuclear energy enterprise, and the possible harm that a continued expansion of the nuclear complex could mean to the Indian people.

Recruiting India

The nuclear deal has to be seen in the context of over a half-century of efforts to incorporate India into the US strategy in Asia. After the 1949 Chinese revolution, the US quickly came to believe that newly independent India was the only potential regional power that could compete with China for dominance in Asia. Despite repeated American efforts to use economic and military aid to promote this policy, however, Jawaharlal Nehru refused to have his country play this role. Nehru was adamant that a free India not be a pawn for the world's great powers, warning that this kind of alliance-building was bad for international relations and could lead to war.

Still, US hostility towards communist China led to some extraordinary ideas about nuclear cooperation. In the wake of China's first nuclear weapons test in 1964, senior officials in the US State Department and Pentagon considered the possibilities of "providing nuclear weapons under US custody" to India and preparing Indian forces to use them. At the same time, the US Atomic Energy Commission was considering helping India with "peaceful nuclear explosions", which, according to non-proliferation expert George Perkovich, would have involved the use of US nuclear devices under US control being exploded in India. These plans were abandoned amidst growing fears of the consequences of proliferation for US military and diplomatic power, and Washington DC turned instead to preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons.

The end of the Cold War prompted a rethinking of strategic possibilities. A now infamous 1992 draft strategic plan prepared for then-Secretary of Defence Dick Cheney declared: "Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defence strategy … We must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role." In other words, the geopolitical order was to be frozen as it was at that point, with the United States assured of maintaining its relative superiority around the world.

The first dramatic change in Indo-US relations came during the March 2000 visit by President Bill Clinton to India, less than two years after India's 1998 nuclear tests. At the time, the governing coalition was dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose position is strongly anti-communist, aggressively pronuclear weapons, and opposed to the more traditional strategy of nonalignment. The joint statement issued during the Clinton visit declared: "India and the United States will be partners in peace, with a common interest in and complementary responsibility for ensuring regional and international security. We will engage in regular consultations on and work together for strategic stability in Asia and beyond."

For the United States, the search for this "strategic stability in Asia" is all about China. In 2000, Condoleezza Rice, now US Secretary of State, argued that China's rise posed an important challenge for the US, and that "China's success in controlling the balance of power depends in large part on America's reaction to the challenge … India is an element in China's calculation, and it should be in America's, too. India is not a great power yet, but it has the potential to emerge as one." The first result of the policy was the "Next Steps in Strategic Partnership" initiative. Signed in January 2004. this agreement announced that the US would help India with its civilian space programmes, high-technology trade, missile-defence efforts, and civilian nuclear activities. The focus on these elements, named the 'trinity issues' in Indo-US diplomatic circles, is a reflection of the power wielded by the nuclear, military and space establishments in Indian policymaking.

The nuclear deal is but one of the building blocks promised in this larger arrangement. The "goal is to help India become a major world power in the 21st century," noted one US official. "We understand fully the implications, including military implications, of that statement." Ashley Tellis, an adviser to the State Department on the US-India nuclear deal, has further explained that: "If the United States is serious about advancing its geopolitical objectives in Asia, it would almost by definition help New Delhi develop its strategic capabilities such that India's nuclear weaponry and associated delivery systems could deter against the growing and utterly more capable nuclear forces Beijing is likely to possess by 2025."

Recruiting India may help to reduce the immediate costs to the US of exercising its military, political and economic power to limit the growth of China as a possible rival. More generally, after the demise of the Soviet Union, the US sees Asia as central to global politics, and desires strong regional clients there. The search for allies and friends became all the more important as the US found itself being criticised for its invasion and occupation of Iraq. On each of these counts, India is seen as a major prize, and support for its military build-up and its nuclear complex is the price that the Bush administration seems willing to pay.

This goal, it seems, is to be pursued regardless of whether it will spur a spiral of distrust, political tension, or dangerous and costly military preparedness between the US and China, between China and India, and between India and Pakistan. Journalist and nuclear issues expert Mark Hibbs reported in late 2005 that Beijing wants any exemptions made for international nuclear cooperation and trade to be made available to others as well – ie, its ally, Pakistan. For its part, Islamabad has demanded from Washington DC (and been refused) the same deal as is being offered to New Delhi. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has observed that "nuclear non-proliferation and strategic stability in South Asia will be possible when the US fulfils the needs of both Pakistan and India for civil nuclear technology on an equal basis." Aziz warned, "A selective and discriminatory approach will have serious implications for the security environment in South Asia."

General Jahangir Karamat, a former Pakistan Army chief who served as ambassador to the US from 2004-2006, has argued that, "The balance of power in South Asia should not become so tilted in India's favour, as a result of the US relationship with India, that Pakistan has to start taking extraordinary measures to ensure a capability for deterrence and defence." Pushing through with this logic and this process will amount to a tragic distortion of values and priorities in both India and Pakistan, which together contain about one-in-three people on the planet, the majority of them very poor.

An errant debate

Even while the nuclear deal has incited a limited policy debate in the United States, it has elicited three broad positions among the political players in India. First, there are the nuclear hawks, who oppose the deal. They see the nuclear energy and nuclear weapons programmes as a more-or-less integrated complex. They view the deal, particularly the proposed separation of civilian and nuclear facilities, as imposing constraints on the creation of a large nuclear arsenal – an element that they believe is essential for India to be a 'great power'.

The clearest expression of the hawkish position view has come from former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and others in the BJP. Vajpayee has argued that, "Separating the civilian from the military would be very difficult, if not impossible. It will also deny us any flexibility in determining the size of our nuclear deterrent." The "flexibility" Vajpayee desires is the ability to use what would usually be classified as civilian facilities to increase the pace at which the nuclear weapons programme could grow, as well as its eventual size.

The second position is that of Manmohan Singh and many other Congress party leaders. They see the deal as offering recognition of India as a nuclear-weapons state, pointing out that the July 2005 joint statement says that India will have "the same benefits and advantages as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology, such as the United States". More practically, they see it as a way to sustain and expand the nuclear energy programme, while not restricting the building of what they describe as a "minimum" nuclear weapons arsenal. While the term minimum is used to suggest that India is being restrained in its nuclear ambitions, the arsenal envisioned is by no means minimal.

A week after the nuclear deal was signed, Prime Minister Singh explained to the Indian Parliament that the agreement offers a way whereby "our indigenous nuclear power programme, based on domestic resources and national technological capabilities, would continue to grow," with the expected international supply of nuclear fuel, technology and reactors serving to "enhance nuclear power production rapidly". At the same time, he emphasised that "there is nothing in the joint statement that amounts to limiting or inhibiting our strategic nuclear weapons programme."

A third position, and an effective source of opposition to the deal, comes from India's Left parties. Although these parties have traditionally supported the nuclear energy programme, they opposed the 1998 Pokhran-II weapons test, and have pressed for India to play a larger role in global disarmament efforts, and to do more to reduce the nuclear dangers in the region. Their greatest concern is that the deal ties India too closely to US policies. Prabodh Panda. a Communist Party of India MP, said in Parliament that the agreement with Washington served to reduce India to a "junior partner of the US in fulfilling its global ambitions". As the first sign of India surrendering its traditional role in representing the Third World and the non-aligned, the politicians opposed to the deal cite New Delhi's vote for a US-led resolution against Iran at the September 2005 IAEA Board of Governors meeting, something that key US officials had made clear was a precondition for the nuclear deal.

Each of these three positions, which have by and large dominated the debate so far, are flawed. They share a belief in the success of India's nuclear energy programme and the need to continue and expand this effort. The politicians of all hues fail to recognise that the very demand for lifting international restrictions on nuclear cooperation is a testament to the failures of India's Department of Atomic Energy.

The second problem is the belief shared by the hawks and the government that nuclear weapons are a source of security. This position ignores the essential moral and legal questions of what it means to have and be prepared to use nuclear weapons. The only difference between these two camps is on the character and number of the nuclear weapons to which they aspire, and on how many people in how many cities they are prepared to threaten to kill. The leftwing parties are more ambiguous: they support disarmament, but have not called for India to unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons arsenal and ambitions. Some of them even feel that Indian nuclear weapons may be needed to hedge against a more belligerent US exercise of power and influence.

Standing outside the political parties is a broad network of Indian social movements, which have become an increasingly important element in the country's political life. The most prominent of these is the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), an umbrella group of several hundred organisations and campaigns that support the rights of the poor, women, minorities, farmers and workers. According to an October 2005 statement, the NAPM has come out against the deal for three main reasons: they see it as having been concluded without any public debate; as strengthening an unaccountable, dangerous and costly Indian nuclear energy and nuclear weapons programme; and as undermining important non-proliferation and disarmament goals.

Broken energy promises

For India, a primary motivation for the deal has been the history of failure of its Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to produce large quantities of nuclear electricity. In 1962, Homi Bhabha, the founder of India's nuclear programme, predicted that by 1987 nuclear energy would constitute up to 25,000 megawatts (MW) of the country's electricity-generation. His successor as head of the DAE, Vikram Sarabhai, predicted that by 2000 there would be 43,500 MW of nuclear power. Neither of these predictions came true.

In fact, despite more than 50 years of generous funding by the state, nuclear power currently amounts to only 3310 MW – barely three percent of India's installed electricity capacity. Nevertheless, the DAE is now promising 40,000 MW by 2030 and 275,000 MW by 2052. Indian nuclear capacity is expected to rise by more than 50 percent over the next few years, largely because of two 1000 MW reactors purchased from the Soviet Union in a 1988 deal, which are now being built by Russia. Even if more such agreements were made in the future, however, it is by no means clear that India's nuclear establishment will be able to keep its promises.

The Department has also failed to ensure sufficient supplies of uranium to fuel its nuclear reactors. As one Indian official explained in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 signing: "The truth is we were desperate. We have nuclear fuel to last only till the end of 2006. If this agreement had not come through, we might as well have closed down our nuclear reactors and, by extension, our nuclear programme." Because its nuclear reactors are not safeguarded, India has been kept from importing uranium by the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, the countries that manage international nuclear trade with a view to preventing proliferation.

Even at just 75 percent efficiency, India's domestically fuelled reactors require nearly 400 tons of uranium every year; the plutonium production reactors, which are earmarked for nuclear weapons purposes, consume another 30-35 tons annually. The writers of this essay estimate that current uranium production within India is less than 300 tons per year – well short of requirements – and that the current uranium stockpiles will be exhausted by 2007. The DAE's desperate efforts to open new uranium mines in the country have met with stiff resistance, primarily because of the detrimental health impacts of uranium mining and milling that have been recorded in the communities around existing mines.

Despite fifty years of determined government support and funding, the dismal state of India's nuclear energy complex offers proof of one of the basic assumptions underlying the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPT implicitly recognised that developing countries would need a great deal of help to successfully establish large nuclear energy programmes. As such, it calls for a trade-off: providing non-nuclear-weapon states access to international cooperation on nuclear energy, in return for a demonstrated commitment not to develop nuclear weapons. In both refusing to sign the NPT and in developing nuclear weapons, India had sacrificed the benefits of this international support since 1974. Now, through the nuclear deal, the United States has promised India all the help it needs for its civilian nuclear programme – all without being forced to sign the treaty, nor accepting any limit on its nuclear arsenal.

Most importantly, the July 2005 agreement promises to allow India access to the international uranium market. If the deal goes through, New Delhi will be able to purchase the uranium it needs to fuel the reactors it chooses to put under IAEA safeguards. This will free up its domestic uranium for its nuclear weapons programme and other military uses, and would allow a significant and rapid expansion in the country's nuclear arsenal. Currently, India is believed to have a stockpile of perhaps 40-50 nuclear weapons, with material stocks for as many more. In addition, according to an article published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in fall of 2005. plans are reportedly in place that would involve an expansion of India's arsenal to 300-400 weapons within a decade.

Realising these plans will require the production of much larger quantities of fissile material (that which powers the nuclear explosion), and at a much faster pace than India has achieved so far. The production of such materials specifically for nuclear weapons is not constrained by the US deal, which would also open several possibilities for India to vastly increase its production, including by utilising its newly unallocated domestic uranium. There is also the possibility, as hinted at by some hawkish critics, that India's nuclear power reactors may become part of the weapons complex, leading to as much as an eightfold increase in the existing rate of plutonium production for explicitly weapons-related purposes.

Neither does the Indo-US agreement constrain India in its use of the weapons-useable materials produced so far. A major source of such material is the plutonium in the spent fuel of the un-safeguarded Indian power reactors. If this spent fuel is not put under safeguards as part of the deal, India would have enough plutonium from this source alone for an arsenal of approximately 1100 weapons — larger than that of all the nuclear-weapon states except the US and Russia.

India's DAE says it plans to use this plutonium as fuel in a series of new 'fast-breeder' reactors to make electricity. These reactors are designed to actually produce more plutonium than they consume, and so in time be self-sustaining in fuel. But the plutonium they produce is different from what they use as fuel — it is ideal for nuclear weapons. The first fast-breeder reactor is supposed to be ready around 2010. If it works as planned — and fast-breeders often do not — it will dramatically increase the production of weapons-grade plutonium in India.

Why nuclear electricity?

Both Indian and US supporters of the deal claim that the growth of nuclear energy generation capacity in India is a practical and even necessary way to maintain the country's current rate of economic growth. The evidence suggests otherwise.

According to the estimates of these writers and many others, the cost of producing nuclear electricity in India is higher than that of the non-nuclear alternatives. In addition, in studying the safety of nuclear reactors and other hazardous technologies, many experts have come to the conclusion that serious accidents are simply inevitable — the character of such complex systems makes accidents a 'normal' part of their operation. Given its high population density, a large nuclear reactor accident in India could cause tremendous damage.

There remains the problem that no country has resolved: the disposal of large amounts of waste that will remain radioactive for many tens of thousands of years. Thus, India would be better off giving up this costly and dangerous technology, and finding ways to meet the needs of its people that do not threaten their future or their environment.

There are alternatives. For instance, it has been estimated that Indian industry could cut down as much as 20-30 percent of its total energy consumption, and that nearly 30,000 MW (more than the total planned nuclear capacity by 2020), could be saved through energy-conservation programmes. This would be significantly cheaper than building new generating capacity. especially additional nuclear capacity. Wind energy has already outstripped nuclear power, though it was started relatively late and has received much less funding support.

The real challenge facing India. however, is the growing divide between the energy-intensive pattern of development of its cities — with increasing demands for electricity and petroleum — and the continuing dependence on fuelwood and animal-dung energy by the majority who live in its villages, with negative implications for their health, productivity and general development. Nuclear energy, as a large, centralised and costly source of electricity, will do little to meet the basic energy needs of rural India: connecting these areas to a central power grid is expensive, involves high transmission losses, and is ultimately financially unsustainable. Instead, by working with the rural poor it could be possible at last to develop and provide the small-scale, local, sustainable and affordable energy systems that they need.

If approved by the US Congress, Indian Parliament and Nuclear Suppliers Group, the US-India nuclear deal will prove both costly and dangerous. It will feed a cascade of mistrust, insecurity and instability, diverting resources to a fateful military competition that will envelop China, India, Pakistan and the United States. More broadly, it is difficult to see the deal as anything other than a fundamental rejection of the non-proliferation regime. as it abandons the assumption that access to nuclear fuel and technology must be under the NPT's terms. In so doing, it undermines the aspirations of the vast majority of countries seeking global and regional nuclear disarmament.

The agreement, if implemented. will create the potential for the rapid build-up of a much larger Indian nuclear arsenal, will likely offer little real benefit to the country's poor, and will bail out a failing Indian nuclear energy programme that has had little regard either for the economics or the environmental and health consequences of its activities. It is not often that so much harm could be done to so many by so few.

This article is a revised version of an essay published in Arms Control Today, January/February 2006.

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