December 25, 2005Foreign AffairsSecurity

Separation anxiety of the nuclear kind

India won’t lose out by carving out its civilian nuclear programme.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Much is being made of India’s plans to separate its civilian and military nuclear programmes. Indian commentators are aghast that India’s nuclear power is being circumscribed by Washington. The American non-proliferation lobby fears that India will divert the technology it will receive into its weapons programme. Ironically, both these quarters are similar in the sense that they overstate the risks and underestimate the opportunities of going through with the July 2005 agreement between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W Bush.

Indian reservations

Consider Indian misgivings first. The objection raised by foreign policy realists is that India must not accept any caps on its nuclear programme — either in terms of number of warheads or in terms of production of fissile material for its weapons programme. This need not necessarily be the case. While separating the civilian and military programmes will certainly restrict transfer of by-products and fuel between the two, a well-structured separation will still leave India with at least one reactor (Dhruva) that can produce plutonium for its weapons programme. In addition, India should also be able to classify CIRUS as a military reactor, with due apologies to the Canadians (who it may be recalled, ceased their co-operation with India more than thirty years ago anyway). Similarly, there is no case putting naval nuclear facilities under international safeguards, as David Albright and his colleagues have suggested, unless of course the international community desires to help out on India’s nuclear submarine project.

Some Indian strategists believe that separation will hamper India’s programme of building a stockpile of fissile material and nuclear warheads. The merits of stockpiling warheads and fissile materials apart, separation does not permanently destroy India’s capacity to produce fissile material. This view underestimates India’s capacity to upgrade existing facilities, and indeed build new ones. It also ignores the possibility that not every one of India’s military nuclear facilities needs to show up on lists prepared by think-tanks.

All this hand-wringing ignores the biggest benefit — separation promises to make nuclear power generation a normal’ industry and offers India an immense opportunity to address its energy security. Arguably, even with existing warheads, India’s deterrent capacity is adequate; and its missile programme can sharpen this capability even without new warheads. India’s energy supplies, on the other hand, are hardly adequate. Hence making nuclear power generation a priority, even if it inconveniences the weapons programme in the short-term, is well worth it.

Some American fears are real. Others, ideological.

It is reasonable for American policy-makers to be concerned about the misuse of dual-use technology and proliferation to third-countries. If American negotiators stick to these objectives, then it is still possible for them to secure a separation agreement that will satisfy both sides. However, if as proposed by some non-proliferation ideologues, negotiators seek to attach safeguards to military projects or use the agreement to highlight how India violated its commitments in the 1960s then the devil of the detail is bound to triumph.

Like India, the United States too will reap both commercial and geo-strategic benefits from the deal. The Indian government of course can formally promise a level-playing field’ for American companies seeking to supply India’s civilian nuclear programme. But if India embraces nuclear power with any enthusiasm American companies will see a huge market opened to them. On the strategic front too, neither India nor the United States will overstate the case for India to strengthen its power projection in the Asian region. But that does not mean that the benefits to the United States are being discounted.

So yes, India will need to do some thinking on the size of its nuclear arsenal. It will need to restructure its nuclear industry. That’s necessary anyway. The United States will need to carefully manage how and where its technology is being used. That’s necessary too (and the deal with India reflects this). What both countries must not forget is that the nuclear weapons that are the sources of geo-political instability did not come from either of them. That’s where the real proliferation problem lies.

Related Links: K Subrahmanyam supports the July 2005 deal; Jeffrey Lewis, the Arms Control Wonk, argues that the debate is really about India’s plutonium stockpile; Siddharth Varadarajan calls David Albright’s draft plan an unofficial US attempt’; Secular-Right thinks that the Indian foreign secretary could have been more diplomatic

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