terror in delhi 10/29
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
  N-deal: An Isolated PMO

In our detailed post, we had expressed serious reservations on the Indo-US N-deal and the lack of transparency on the part of the Indian Government. Since then, the Prime Minister had assured that India's nuclear deterrence will not be compromised without giving any details.

Before jumping in, we invite the reader to read this short summary of the issue at hand - a ‘credible’ separation plan and the status of the Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR). Recall from our post that the July 18th deal mentioned none of it - the idea was that the separation plan was ‘voluntary’. Also, India’s total installed nuclear power generation is just 3,310 MW an insignificant amount given its vast size. With a modest installed capacity comes a modest arsenal and the U.S. wants to put a cap even on that. Talk about making India a “World Power”.

Hypocrisy aside, it is clear that there is are fundamental differences between the Indian and American negotiating positions. Even worse there seems to be a glaring difference of opinion between the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on one side and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on the other. In this post, we analyze the increasing opposition from Indian nuclear scientists including their chief, former diplomats, a former National Security Advisor and a former Prime Minister with details on why the the separation plan cannot be done immediately without compromising on strategic assets. Bottom line: The PMO is isolated on this issue (except a few ‘cheerleaders’ of the Indian media) and needs to come clean on the leeway it is willing to give away to the U.S.

Accusing the Unites States of ‘shifting goal posts’ the head of DAE, Dr. Anil Kakodkar came out strongly against placing weapons and breeder reactors under IAEA safeguards:
Calling himself the “biggest champion of the July 18 nuclear deal,” Kakodkar, who is also Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy, told The Indian Express in an exclusive interview that as per that agreement, “this determination (of what goes on which list, civilian or military) has to be made by the Indians...(for) India’s strategic interests will have to be decided by India and not by others.”

According to Kakodkar, the following were exempted from the civilian list first shared with Washington: the Fast Breeder Reactor programme, all facilities at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, the uranium-enrichment facilities off Mysore and “some” of the indigenously developed power reactors, the ones needed to fuel the Fast Breeder programme.

Placing the Fast Breeder programme in the civilian list, Kakodkar said, “will not be in our strategic interest” both for long-term energy security and for maintaining nuclear-weapons capabilities. For, it would push India “into another import trap,” constantly dependent on supplies of imported enriched uranium.

To elaborate his points further:
The main reason why sections of the Indian strategic and nuclear establishments would want to keep a large number of facilities in the military sector is to retain India's options for generating weapons-usable plutonium. Currently, India’s weapons-grade plutonium is produced in two research reactors – CIRUS and Dhruva, located at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) campus. These reactors are operated with a low-burnup, and the fuel rods are removed after brief irradiation and the resulting plutonium separated. Such low burnups are not efficient for power production. High burnups used in power production result in higher isotopes of plutonium, which are suboptimal for weapons production. However, the inherently dual nature of this part of the nuclear program lies in the fact that, despite the higher isotopes in reactor grade plutonium, it can also be used to make fission weapons.

The plutonium produced in India’s power reactors is also an integral part of its plans for three stage power programme – the plutonium produced in the first stage is to be used in the second stage in its proposed Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR) to produce fissile uranium-233. The rate at which uranium-233 fuel is made available for its third stage that would use India’s plentiful supplies of thorium, therefore depends on the quantities of plutonium produced in its first stage. In addition, plutonium separated from its power reactors can be used as MOX for its light water reactors in Tarapur.

President Kalam too emphasized on the need to pursue the Thorium-based approach:
"Nuclear power generation has been given a thrust by the use of Uranium-based fuel (which US is set to supply to India if the deal comes through). However, there would be a requirement for ten-fold increase in nuclear power generation even to attain a reasonable degree of energy self-sufficiency for our country," Kalam said at the Asiatic Society gathering here Monday night.

"Therefore, it is essential to pursue the development of nuclear power using thorium reserves which are abundant in the country," he said adding "technology development has to be accelerated for thorium-based reactors".

In addition, more scientists voiced their opinions. Former Ambassadors in a rare declaration, expressed concerns at the lack of transparency and wanted the details to be made public. Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh too has warned at the present state of the N-deal.

Finally, the PMO weighed in:

“This (the view expressed by the atomic energy panel chief) is a departmental perspective. The government policy is based on our strategic policy which is evolved by various strategic policy groups like the National Security Council, cabinet committee on security and strategic policy group. There are institutions in the government for strategic policy making. The AEC is just one of those departments.”

Yes, but what exactly is this policy and who are these people? So far we have only the Prime Minister giving empty ‘assurances’. But then Dr. Singh is an economist by training. He is not an expert in foreign policy let alone nuclear technology. Can we have some names behind these committees? We would like to see one of ‘his’ people defending the N-deal in its present form by debating the valid points Dr. Kakodkar raised.

The DAE is not opposed to idea of separation per se. It simply wants that it should be the Indians who will ultimately decide “when” and “how many” of these reactors be classified as ‘civilian’, as per the original agreement. It believes that the breeder program is still in research stage and the IAEA safeguards will only hinder its development speed. In addition, the breeder reactors cannot run in isolation. The ‘feed’ needed to breed Plutonium has to come from traditional Uranium-based reactors. Hence to maintain fissile material for the weapons program and to feed the breeder reactors, the DAE wants to place them as well out of civilian list. The American position has been that a majority of the research reactors as well as the FBR be placed in the civil list. It also intriguing as to why the Americans are interested in India’s nascent FBR program.

With such blatant differences, we absolutely see no point in pressurizing Indian scientists to spell out an immediate separation plan just to coincide President Bush’s March visit to India. The issue needs to be debated in depth with full transparency to the Indian public. After all, India’s scientists have worked alone all these years, a few more months will not make a big difference. This will ensure that none of our strategic assets are auctioned-off for short-term gains or worse special interest groups. We will write on these groups later.

Update: After taking a confrontationalist position, the Prime Minister has come down on his position and has appointed a negotiator:

In this context, Chaturvedi met Kakodkar today and will be meeting Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran. Kakodkar met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yesterday after he was told that he should have waited for the PM to make a statement in Parliament on the matter.

The Cabinet Secretary, who is also a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, was asked to speak to scientists and diplomats to arrive at a final position

Kakodkar, sources said, emphasised the need for a credible minimum nuclear deterrent, keeping in view the Asian security scenario. He also quantified the sort of deterrent India needs to maintain for the future, explaining that in less than a decade the country’s stockpile will begin to feel the impact of uranium’s half-life decay cycle.

The one option being looked at was to benefit from the understanding that India will carry out its separation of reactors in a “phased manner”. Phasing would allow New Delhi flexibility in the FBR programme, giving the AEC more time to work out a plan for the future without disturbing the agreement with Washington.

Cross posted in Desicritics.org.

Prime Minister might be getting pressure from Washington to agree on a nuclear deal so that when Bush can sign the treaty and make splash the media with his acomplishments. I totally agree with you in that we should show no haste and yeild to these external pressure our country who has indigenously acquired nuclear capability should think through its options and give enough value to the suggestions of DEA who are more knowledgeable in these matters than anyone else.
great post. i agree with the fact that the FBR and current reactors should be off the civilian list and the importance of the minimum deterrence cannot be over emphasized. However, I am not sure whether there is a concerted effort by the DAE to retain its monopoly on nuclear research in India. Our need for energy is immediate, but the DAE's solution is atleast a decade or two away, so there needs to be some public discussion on this. The issue is ofcourse complicated by the fact that the PM has not disclosed anything, either with respect to the deal or its cabinet. There is too much secrecy and that is a cause for concern. But there seems to be some encouraging news: India may get US to soften stand on nuke reactors
kuttan: Thanks. If Bush wants to sell something, he can sell some Boeings or some cowboy hat/boots!

soothsayer: Thanks. On your point about monopoly, fine the DAE is ready to debate about it. But not under American pressure with an artificial deadline. After all DAE was not aware of any of these when it agreed with the July 18th. This is exactly why Dr. AK called 'shifting goal posts'.

Remember that, there are other ways of getting energy, but once the IAEA sets foot on our facilities, there is no going back.

Cynical Nerd,

Informative and superb post, as always. India positioned itself in the international strategic map only after Pokhran 1 and 2. No United States President bothered to visit New Delhi between 1979 and 1999. Clinton visited India post-Pokhran reflecting India's sudden strategic clout. It can not now unroll its international gains by giving into United States pressure. The energy requirements of India's fast expanding economy are significant. But these need to be balanced with the nuclear options that the big 5 have.

None of the declared nuclear powers have given in to external pressure to cap the production of fissile materials. They made their own decisions after taking into account their own interests in the defence realm. India too should not give in under the purported rubric of bringing in most of its nuclear facilities, including the fast breeder reactors, under international scrutiny in exchange for United States assistance in the energy realm.

I am not confident of Manmohan Singh's prowess in international relations. The issue needs further and careful debate, not just in cabinet but in the legislature and the scientific community as well. I hope the President exercises his influence to urge more discussion before India agrees to any deal with the United States that might compromise its long term interests for short term gain - in this instance perhaps, the gain of its Prime Minister and sections of the media.

Best regards
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