By Pradeepa Viswanathan
The decision of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) on 23-24 June 2011 to strengthen guidelines on the transfer of sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technologies concerns countries which are non-NPT members, and those who have not adopted IAEA full scope safeguards. India fits both criterions, but was depending on the ‘clean waiver’ given to it by the NSG to bypass these norms.
Some groups in India, however, have cried foul over this ruling, with the government being largely silent on the issue. The communications received so far from Government sources, minimal as they are, have tried to allay criticism and evade misgivings over the nuclear agreements. The following discussion assesses the possible implications of the guidelines for India.
What is ENR technology and why is it vital for India?
Enrichment and Reprocessing (ENR) technology is a part of the comprehensive nuclear fuel cycle. Enrichment is the process by which uranium is refined for use either for energy or military purposes depending on the percentage of purity. Reprocessing or separation of spent fuel is undertaken to make it safe but also to extract by-product isotopes for other civil or military applications. ENR technology therefore can be used to manufacture highly enriched uranium (HEU) or separate plutonium, both of which are fissile materials required for building a nuclear weapon. It is primarily this weaponization possibility which has led to tightened guidelines over transfer of ENR technology.
India is among the few countries to possess an indigenous ENR capability. However, it still requires access to advanced ENR technology. Given the target to expand its nuclear energy production from the current 3 per cent to an ambitious 25 per cent by the year 2050 to meet its growing energy demand, the import of these sensitive technologies will save India the cost of constructing advanced indigenous ENR facilities.
How do the guidelines affect Indian interests?
It would be an aberration to suggest that the guidelines put India’s nuclear interests at peril. It is so because, first, although the guidelines restrict the transfer of ENR technology they do not affect the commerce relating to nuclear reactors (including their fuel supplies) or New Delhi’s rights to reprocess and recycle spent fuel. Second, the NSG not being a formal organization, its guidelines are not legally binding. So member states have the flexibility to deal individually with issues relating to nuclear commerce.
This right became evident with statements from India’s three major nuclear technology partners, the United States, Russia and France, affirming bilateral commitments to take precedence over the renewed guidelines. For instance, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during her India visit had stated, “Nothing about the new restrictions…should be construed as detracting from the unique impact and importance of the US-India civil nuclear agreement.” This clarification is important, given the willingness of French and Russian suppliers to look past NSG guidelines to further their trade with India, and the inability of American firms to rival European entry into the Indian market.
Contrary to the technological implications, the guidelines have succeeded in generating domestic political heat. The Indian ruling elite has been vulnerable since the details of the Indo-US nuclear cooperation agreement was tabled in Parliament. The current ruling simply strains the existing position. Internally, this issue appears to have divided those who feel ‘betrayed by the NSG’ and those who feel ‘betrayed by the Government’.
The former portray the guidelines as contradicting the spirit if not the letter of the nuclear deal and the exemptions provided to India. Anil Kakodkar, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, viewed the ruling as a “big departure, or betrayal of the exemption NSG had granted India.” The latter, led by the opposition, notably by BJP’s Yashwant Sinha and other political leaders against the deal, assert that the government knew of this impending decision and should have prepared for it. These groups have stated that not just the citizens but the Parliament of the country has been misled by the ruling elite as well.
What could be a possible Indian response?
The decision has more political than technological consequences for India. The ruling has undermined, on one hand, the promise of the deal and the exemption leading to domestic discontent against the Indian Prime Minister, and on the other, India’s faith in its ‘impeccable non-proliferation record.’ A possible Indian response to the decision should feature two imperatives: external and internal. Externally, New Delhi should exert the available leverages in bilateral dealings with its nuclear partners and internally, it should pursue a more transparent approach towards securing domestic consensus.
This said, the possible Indian response, whether it takes stock of these effects and whether it remains prepared to incorporate the leverages, continues to remain uncertain and unclear.
Research Intern, IPCS
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