February 7, 2006Foreign AffairsSecurity

Separation anxiety of the nuclear kind (2)

Liberalise the nuclear power industry

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

One of the more unfortunate sides of the current debate over the separation of India’s civilian and military nuclear projects is the characterisation, by the Indian Express, of India’s nuclear scientific establishment. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and its members have more expertise in matters nuclear than the _Express’_s editorial board and Mr C Raja Mohan combined. The nuclear establishment’s voicing of a view that is different from that of the rest of the Indian government should not suddenly qualify its competency to be questioned and its record belittled, all with a view to dismissing its concerns. Sure, it is necessary to conduct a critical appraisal of its record and performance — by the government and even by the media — but that is altogether a different matter.

That the DAE is resistant to change is understandable. It is also true that many officials in the nuclear establishment do not like the Indian government’s decision to separate the programmes as part of the deal with the United States. But it is important to note that their most serious objections are not over separation itself, but over how what is separated. The DAE has reasonable grounds to argue to keep the fast breeder reactor projects away from IAEA safeguards. Firstly, India has a technological edge in this niche. Allowing its scientists to develop intellectual property in this area makes sense. Secondly, the thorium that fuels these reactors is abundantly available in India. Thirdly, fast breeder reactors produce five times the fissile material as conventional reactors. The availability of a ready source of fissile material (to power India’s nuclear weapons) becomes all the more important after separation.

The Acorn remains a strong supporter of the Indo-US strategic partnership, and indeed, the need for separation of the military and the civilian aspects of the nuclear programme. But it is absurd to be dismissive of the DAEs reasonable concerns, especially if the motivation for making haste is to reach an agreement in time for President Bush’s visit to India later this year. Although Indian negotiators have a point when they point out that the United States is changing the goalposts”, the Bush administration needs a deal that it can sell to the US Congress. Taking a legalistic line on what is essentially a unprecedented compromise by both sides will be counterproductive. Yet as far as separation is concerned, as Bharat Karnad argues, India could reasonably insist on applying the same rules that America applies to itself.

But there is one aspect missing from the current debate, and that relates to the nuclear power industry structure. Quite distinct from this debate over how the current pie is sliced is how the deal with the United States will change India’s nuclear power policy. Given the huge gap between demand and supply of electricity in India, there is a case for the government to open up the industry for private and foreign investment. Needless to say, these reactors will be under international safeguards and thus no different from plants that burn coal or spin turbines. Liberalising the nuclear power industry need not affect the government’s nuclear establishment’s work on fast breeder reactors and the weapons programme. But, among other things, it will give President Bush something to carry back to his constituents.

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