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  Making Sense out of Current Discord on Indo–US Nuclear Deal  


By: Hari Sud
February 16, 2007
iews expressed here are author’s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer is at the bottom.


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One month has passed since both houses of the US Congress passed the Henry Hyde, US – India Peaceful Atomic Energy Act of 2006. Next step is to change a few provisions in the all-important US Atomic Energy Act of 1954. These changes appear simple on the surface, but debate to get these changes made is getting acrimonious. Reasons: interpreting what the Congress has authorized? A few clauses in the Henry Hyde Act were deliberately left ambiguous. Politicians in America were trying to please both parties i.e. parties which opposed the deal and parties which whole-heartedly supported the deal. In short, Part 1 of this high stakes drama has just ended with President Bush signing the above bill into law. Parts 2 and 3, i.e. changing the aforementioned 1954 Act’s relevant clauses and persuading NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) to follow the suite, have just begun. US nuclear lobby, which suffered a setback with the passage of the above bill have found itself another opportunity to derail the deal. They are using to their advantage, a minor stipulation in the aforementioned bill in which, President is required to certify periodically that India is complying with all conditions of the Henry Hyde Act. One such condition is that India will not undertake fresh nuclear tests any time in the future. Distracters have zeroed in on this stipulation to derail the deal. India has stated time and again that India will not conduct nuclear tests any time soon. If India’s security is at risk then India may be forced into this action. For this India cannot commit itself today. The forgoing is proving difficult to write into the changes to the 1954 Act.

Forbidding nuclear tests by all nations has been a US law for a long time; the forgoing has been restated as a minor stipulation in the Henry Hyde Act. Laws or no laws, North Korea conducted its nuclear tests and Iran may follow soon, hence US laws rarely help to change anybody’s mind. These laws are enacted to cover the moral high ground, which in turn helps them to heap rebuke on an offending nation. It also helps them to morally deny high tech commerce. Sanctions and denials have temporarily hurt, but the long-term impact is usually low. Dr. A Q Khan and Pakistan have proliferated the nuclear bomb technology to everybody who is interested. It is difficult to sanction everybody and live happily there after. Hence why would US begin to ask this question from India again, which has guarded its nuclear technology with diligence, is hard to figure out. Alternatively, it may simply be posturing on US part at the US nuclear lobby’s behest. Later they may drop it as an issue. It all will depend upon and give and take which is likely to happen during the final strokes of the language written to change the 1954 Act. But the acrimony on this debate especially in India is in a high gear. India needs this deal to meet its growing energy needs. This deal has been in the works for the last 10 years. India is almost there to become a junior partner in the nuclear commerce. Without it, India will suffer a perpetual energy shortage. The latter will be bad for the economy. Also, recognition of India as a nuclear power nation will elude it. Removing a few offending stipulations in the Henry Hyde Act of 2006 should be left for the future. Again, India may not have to wait a long time. Thanks to China’s aggressive military build-up, future is already here.

What is 123 Agreement?

Chapter 11 of this Act (see reference below) specifically deals with international activities pertaining to nuclear energy. Of this chapter, section 123, pertains to co-operation with “other nations”. The legal mumbo jumbo in this section runs 6 pages. It puts limits on what the President can do and what it cannot do. For the latter, it has to seek the US Congress’s permission. India fell in the category of nations for which, it was necessary to seek US Congress’s redress. The Henry Hyde Act has granted this. The wise men and women of the Congress on the last day of their existence as a body (before the new the Congress is sworn in) approved a legislation, which cannot be classified as a gesture of goodwill and long overdue realization to treat India fairly, but a middle ground. The contentious issue here again is the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, which India has refused to sign. The treaty gives China (India’s belligerent northern neighbor) full right to conduct any nuclear test, improve its nuclear capability, and buy nuclear reactors anywhere abroad and India is hamstrung by a non descript US laws. Pakistan is in the same state, except that the nuclear commerce is forbidden with them completely.

But nothing will be achieved by this acrimonious debate. India has to take whatever it got (truly, it got a lot) and proceed to build power plants to relieve the energy shortage in the country. The argument that US have shifted the goal post during the final drafting of legislation thru the Congress may partially be true. In order to get the deal thru the Republican controlled Congress, US made some adjustment to the original Manmohan - Bush deal. Changes as evident in the legislation from US point of view are not significant. But India has beginning to think that the spirit of the agreement has been compromised. At heart is the nuclear testing issue. This issue will be hard to sort out today. With this deal, a new phase in form of Indo – US commerce is set to begin. India has to take advantage of it in every possible way. Once the Indo –US commercial ties are on firm footings there will be opportunities to remove any offending provision in the Henry Hyde Act. These opportunities are already here. Take for example the growing Chinese military arsenal (especially after the latest Chinese feet in shooting down a satellite), US is concerned. They need partners to contain China, before it becomes a serious threat to US Pacific Command. US have no partners other than India and Japan and to some extent Russia to contain China. India is likely to become front and center of the US policy to contain China soon. That will be the best time to reopen the issue of nuclear test by India. Growing economy will provide plenty of money to upgrade its nuclear arsenal.

http:// www.nrc.gov / reading-rm /doc-collections/nuregs/staff/sr0980/ml022200075-vol1.pdf# pagemode=bookmarks&page=14

The NSG (Nuclear Supplier’s Group) and Their Free Wheeling Style

This 45-member group was again a US creation in 1975. US were trying its best to deny nuclear non-signatories of NPT i.e. India, Pakistan, Israel and South Africa nuclear commerce (Racist regime of South Africa from 1975 till 1993 had a nuclear program). Any country, which could supply either nuclear related hardware & technology or supply Uranium as fuel for the reactors or Uranium ore concentrate were brought into its fold. US helped to write its rules, which were in some places tougher than the local rules & legislations of the member states. Stringent of all the rules is that any exception to the rules in future would be unanimous. US held all the strings and dictated exceptions, if any, for the last 30 years. Today, US have a bit lesser influence. This mainly due to the emergence of China as an independent military power not bound by any of the agreements which US struck with Russia (previously USSR) from 1970 onwards. Lucky for China, they had been handed over the coveted nuclear power status in 1975. Reasons: they had tested their nuclear bomb in 1964 (as opposed to India who tested it in 1974). China, if in disagreement with the proposed changes in favor of India, could hold-up changes to the NSG rules.

To make an exception to the NSG rules, groundwork has been done by both India & US in last one year. Russia, UK, Germany, France, Japan, Australia, after initial posturing, is definitely on Indian side. Minor countries like Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, all non-nuclear but members of the NSG are doubters who prefer not to change the NSG rules. They have taken a moral high ground of nuclear non-proliferation. Pressure from India and US will change their mind soon. Remaining NSG members will fall in line sooner or later.

China as usual is belligerent. They do not wish India to match them in industrial might, still better, develop more potent nuclear weapons. Hence they have adopted a noble strategy of lukewarm attitude towards India’s request. They are arguing that unless NSG grants a similar exception to Pakistan (if not now, then in the future), they will stay lukewarm to India’s request. US Undersecretary of State Nicholus Burns have had talks in Peking on this matter. He has asked China, not to press Pakistan’s case further in light of A Q Khan’s nuclear proliferation activities. This matter was also discussed during Chinese President’s recent visit to India. Most likely scenario is that China will use the Pakistani card to get some more economic concessions from India.

What is the Indian Scientists Saying and Are they Making Useful Suggestions?

Indian nuclear scientists have voiced concern on the above deal. They have been trying to build commercial sized nuclear power plant, but have partially succeeded. Technology is in their grasp; but commercialization requires more experience and better mega fabrication know-how. Small prototypes are under construction. But none of the prototypes is ready to be duplicated in a big way. Hence successive governments in India in last twenty years have been in a fix whether to ask for outside help or not. Waiting for the Indian technology to mature will take another 20 years. Lost time will seriously jeopardize country’s development. Hence, the present Prime Minister asked for US help. The scientific community (especially scientists at the Atomic Energy Commission) has not been supportive of the Indo – US deal. They feel their coveted position as top scientists in the country and the perks, which go with it, is being compromised. This is a lame duck excuse. There is a lot to learn in building nuclear power plants including Fast Breeder Reactors. Experience in ready-made form has to be acquired from abroad. Civilian nuclear energy commerce, which had been impeded by US Laws, has been set free. Moreover, India has a serious Uranium supply crunch. Not much is mined in India and all outside supplies are out of India’s gasp. Hence somehow Uranium supplies are to be insured for the current and future nuclear power plants. This deal will ensure a constant supply. Hence how could you ever throw a deal like this away?

The matter of Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR) has become a cornerstone of Indian scientist’s argument for self-sufficiency. FBRs will generate more fuel ultimately than they consume. The forgoing is true, but it is not entirely the whole statement. As a starter, FBR program worldwide has been abandoned except in India for fear of safety. Moreover FBRs utilize Plutonium obtained from reprocessing the spent fuel of thermal reactors. Hence India needs Uranium to feed into the thermal reactors before extracted Plutonium is fed into the FBRs. Hence, we are back to the original argument of ensuring Uranium supplies. Again, it has been argued that Thorium, which is abundantly available in India, should become source of raw material for FBRs. This argument is again true, but its commercialization is years away. By then the Cold Fusion technology, which is the final stages of development prior to commercialization (15 years) will be available. India will have full access to this technology. The latter is a gift to India even before India – US Nuclear deal.

Uranium Supplies to India?

India has a very limited supply of Uranium. A few mines in Bihar, Meghalaya and Andhra Pradesh produce insufficient quantities to feed both its nuclear/military arsenal as well as the commercial reactors. Total Indian production of Uranium Oxide (Yellow Cake) is about 300 tons a year. World supply and demand stands at about 68,000 tons of Uranium (as oxide) per year. About 40% of the demand is met by Australia and remaining by Canada, US, South Africa and Russia. Naturally occurring Uranium has only 0.71% of U235. Nuclear reactors of all kinds (pressurized water as well as boiling water reactors) require a U235 concentration of about 5%. At discharge out of the reactors, U235 concentration in the spent fuel drops to about 0.6 to 0.8%. This then is piled up for safe long-term disposal. It is one of the most vexing problems of modern era to dispose off this spent fuel. US with 103 nuclear reactors have the biggest of this problem. But solutions have been found and soon it will be stored safely for the next millennium or so.

Uranium ore as it comes out of the mines is mostly sand, clay and other external materials. Traces of other radioactive minerals like Thorium are also present. Ores in the western countries at 0.71% of U235 is a better concentrate as opposed to Indian ore, which has only 0.1% of U235 concentration. In laymen’s terms, seven amounts of Uranium ore need to be processed to get one amount of Uranium, good for fuel in a reactor. In India, because of poorer quality of ore, about 70 amounts of ore are to be processed before one amount of reactor quality U235 is produced. This is a huge amount ore to be processed to get to the finished product. Hence 300 tons of Indian Yellow Cake does not go far. As a matter of fact, it is only good for about 3 Billion MW of electricity generation (2% of India’s power generation). In some respect Indian capability to expand nuclear electricity generation is hampered by this lack of Uranium availability locally. The Indo – US nuclear deal, together with NSG modifying its rules will ensure adequate supply of Uranium. If in the future, all the civilian supplies could be lined up, then India could divert its 300 tons of its own production for military use.

Uranium sale always comes with conditions. At the heart of this sale is the disposition of the remaining 0.6 to 0.8% U235 in the spent fuel. Suppliers would wish to exercise their right on this remnant U235. It is not unusual that U235 in the spent fuel is extracted and diverted for military use. Nations usually negotiate final disposition of the spent fuel. These are not insurmountable difficulties, which cannot be overcome. With US on Indian side, all issues relating to Uranium sale could be easily solved.

US and Russia are not producing or consuming a lot of Uranium ore in last 10 years. With the end of Cold War, Russia and US dismantled a huge number of their nuclear bombs. U235 of these bombs is now becoming feed to the commercial reactors. This process will continue for a while, until all the Uranium out of the dismantled nuclear bombs has been used up. India, China as well Pakistan have limited number of bombs, hence there will never be a situation that nuclear bombs are dismantled to feed its Uranium into the commercial reactors in these countries, except under complete nuclear disarmament conditions.

In conclusion, it can be said very clearly that Indo –US Nuclear Deal is one of the nicest business deal, which has happened in the last 50 years. It ensures power availability for the growing economy. It also sets a new course for India – US commercial relations. Skeptics in India will have to tone down their rhetoric and see the good side of the deal. All shortcomings which India feels have been stated in this agreement can be overcome over a period of time.

Hari Sud

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