India wary of 'game plan'

4 October 2006

Fuel reprocessing, inspection schedules, civilian/military separation and unilateral moratoriums versus bilateral commitments: the list of hurdles potentially hindering the Indo-American nuclear cooperation deal, pending ratification by the USA Congress, is long.

Under the agreement, India is supposed to separate its nuclear facilities into civilian and military categories. Those reactors defined as civilian will be open to full International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and in return will receive imported nuclear material, technology and full international cooperation from the USA.

However, in August, a group of top retired nuclear scientists, wary of vaguely defined provisions and their strategic implications, approached India’s parliamentarians to impress upon the government their concerns about the deal. They claimed that India’s right to conduct scientific research and undertake strategic policymaking is being compromised and that their secret programmes could be made open to the US government via the IAEA. They also warned about the loss of thousands of young scientists who might leave the country’s nuclear establishment for other jobs, once the prestige and challenge of innovation is taken away from them. Not only have they received support from right wing parties that are worried about perceived threats to India’s nuclear weapons programme, but they have also found allies in the communists who had opposed India testing an atom bomb in 1998. The latter are now more concerned about country’s alliance with the ‘imperialist Americans’.

The cause of confusion lies in the language of the signed agreement, as explained by Arun Shourie, an opposition leader from the right wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and the most vocal critic of the deal: “To every apprehension (expressed by scientists and opposition), the answer (by the government) used to be the bland assertion, ‘nothing will be done that violates the 18 July (2005) joint statement’,” in which India agreed to undertake the obligations and best practices that go with being a responsible nuclear weapons state. Shourie added: “But that sudden scripture was a general statement of intent, an empty vessel into which anything could be and was being poured.”

Responding promptly to the uproar, prime minister Manmohan Singh has fought his corner and backed the deal with assurances on every point of confusion and emphasised that under the agreement: “We will be free to build new reactors and whether to declare them civilian or military will be our option.”

This direct approach did pacify the scientists but their apprehensions lingered on. “Americans want India to abandon its frontier areas research in nuclear and other energy technologies, so that we always remains a buyer of such technologies and their plants,” said Adinarayana Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, and an active campaigner against the proposed nuclear cooperation.

Explaining what he saw as the “American game plan,” he said: “While India will be allowed to import only light water reactors, which use enriched uranium, the access to the key technologies for uranium enrichment, fuel reprocessing and heavy water will be denied.”

The Indian government has pointed to the fact that India has an indigenous enrichment plant in Mysore, and has even claimed that it could supply fuel for the new plants, but Gopalakrishnan argues that it is too small and requires upgrading.

Reacting to the amendments to the bill by US Congressmen that puts a binding obligation on India not to test nuclear weapons in the future, and denies India any right to leave the treaty on its own, the chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar, said that India has no bilateral commitment to ban nuclear tests and it is exercising self-restraint only under a unilateral moratorium. He also stated that the inspections into the 14 nuclear facilities to be designated for power generation will begin only after the deal’s fuel supply and technology transfers actually start. In an interview with The Hindu newspaper, Kakodkar reminded the world about India’s track record as a “safe and responsible nuclear player” and made it clear that the Indian nuclear programme “will continue whether or not the deal with the US comes through.”

Thorium programme

The future of India’s nuclear programme relies heavily on its thorium-based fast breeder reactor project, which it has been pursuing for more than 30 years at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) in Kalpakkam, in south India. With more than 1000 scientists and engineers involved in the operations, the programme will remain outside the purview of any international inspections.

In this project the 40MWt sodium cooled Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) has been operational for the last 20 years and work has commenced on building a demonstration fast breeder power reactor of 500MWe capacity, which is expected to start operations by 2011. This reactor will initially be fuelled with a mixed oxide of depleted uranium and plutonium, and subsequent units of this kind will use metallic alloy in place of the mixed oxide, to give a shorter fuel breeding time.

Simultaneously, experts claim, all research and development work necessary to build the Indian nuclear programme’s final stage thorium/U-233 breeders is fast nearing completion and by 2020, the first of these reactors of 500MWe capacity are expected to be commissioned. Once India reaches this stage, given its abundant national resources of thorium, the country could rely upon nuclear power to provide long-term energy security.

However, at present the energy shortage remains the most serious problem for the $692 billion Indian economy that is growing at more than 8% annually. Already its energy prices are among the highest in the world and per capita consumption amongst the lowest. The contribution of nuclear power from 18 functional reactors is less than 3% – or 3400MWe – which the Department of Atomic Energy plans to enhance to 20,000MWe over the next 15 years.

To achieve this goal, government planners are advocating for private investments in the nuclear power sector and diversion of all the public funding earmarked for nuclear programmes to the development of fast breeder reactors.

An Atomic Industrial Forum has already been set up to explore a possibility of starting a nuclear power generation company in joint venture between the state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation and Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, and private companies Larson & Toubro and Reliance Energy.

Success of these ventures is greatly dependent on a future supply of uranium, which is a rare substance in India. There are four mines producing just 230 tonnes – 0.5% of world’s yearly output – and that too, said prime minister Singh, at a “quite prohibitive cost when compared to international prices.”

Therefore lot depends on the outcome of the Indo-US nuclear deal and subsequent approval from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the multinational body that controls the export of nuclear material, equipment and technology. These approvals will decide the fate of India’s request for uranium supply from Australia that was repeated during prime minister John Howard’s visit to New Delhi earlier this year.

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