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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 34

India-US Nuclear Deal : A Few Hard Questions

by Nilofar Suhrawardy

Saturday 11 August 2007


Even if it is agreed that the Indo-US nuclear deal is a “historic” agreement, reflective of a path-breaking step taken by New Delhi and Washington, one cannot remain oblivious of its limitations as well as disadvantages. A reading of the text of the 123 Agreement, unveiled earlier this month, compels one to regard it more as a symbol of the United States’ carrot-and-stick policy being exercised towards India than their diplomatic warmth. On page one itself, the 22-page text refers to the two countries “desiring to establish the necessary legal framework and basis for cooperation concerning peaceful uses of nuclear energy”. With this legal framework being labeled as “necessary”, one is compelled to question as to whether it would give equal importance to laws of both countries as well as the international law regarding nuclear energy.

The Agreement, according to Article 16, shall enter into force for 40 years from the day the two countries “exchange diplomatic notes informing each other that they have completed all applicable requirements for its entry into force”. In addition to the 40-year period, the Agreement is extendable by 10 years. The Agreement can terminate earlier with a written notice of a year, which can also be withdrawn before the year is over, according to Article 14. Prior to terminating it, the two countries “shall consider relevant circumstances and promptly hold consultations” to “address reasons cited by party (country) seeking termination”. If cooperation ceases, “either party shall have the right to require the return by the other party of any nuclear material, equipment, non-nuclear material or components transferred under this agreement and any special fissionable material produced through their use”.

Article 14 also states: “The two parties recognise that exercising the right of return would have profound implications for their relations.” It cannot be missed that continuance of the deal, in keeping with the Agreement’s text, refers to the development of a “strategic partnership” between the India and US. Discontinuance of the same, as suggested by this Article, would have “profound” (apparently negative) impact on their ties. Once the deal becomes operational, if India or the US were ever to turn their backs to it, it would also signal a major change in their diplomatic attitude towards each other. Unless India wishes to risk its friendship with the US, once the deal comes through, it would apparently have little choice but to adhere strictly not just to the very text of the Agreement, but also to the diplomatic whims of the superpower. Is India willing to take the risk?

Besides, the deal would have been to India’s advantage and would not have provoked any question if the US could be trusted with its non- proliferation drive and nuclear diplomacy. How can it be forgotten that the United States’ entry onto the nuclear stage, at the global level, has been marked by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Besides, who is not aware that in the present era, the US is better known for having spread war and terror as and where it has desired and has hardly contributed to peace or democracy? How can it not be ignored that the US has been for more than a decade inching for greater entry into the Indian economy to lessen its economic ties with China? Howsoever, till of late, it has been obstructed by Indian red tapism. Bush apparently is hopeful of killing two birds with one stone—gaining greater entry into the economic zone and securing the required seal on the Indo-US nuclear deal. But, how can it be missed that the exercise of going overboard to come too close to the US does not serve India’s interest as much as it does that of the US? How can it be forgotten that the nuclear deal itself signals compromising by India of its own sovereignty in the nuclear zone?

IN lieu of the noise being made about the necessity of Indo-US nuclear civilian cooperation, how can the risks accompanying the same be overlooked? Even if the Indian authorities turn a blind eye to their sovereignty over formulation of an independent foreign policy being at stake, have they given any thought to where would the nuclear waste be stored? Are they prepared to build such civilian reactors at places where nuclear accidents and nuclear wastes will not put the population at risk? If the Indian population had come to terms with the Bhopal disaster, and if India had overcome the risks posed by the same, these questions would have probably remained irrelevant.

One cannot ignore the hard fact that even the US has not yet totally and absolutely found a permanent solution for disposing of its nuclear waste. Over 50,000 tons (45,000 metric tons) of such waste from the United States’ nuclear plants— which supply around 20 percent of the nation’s electricity—is stored at over 100 temporary locations in 39 states. Now, if India is seriously considering of going the US way of turning to nuclear reactors for electricity supply, have the authorities decided which States are going to be used for storing the waste? Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, which one?

Coming to the legal part, have the Indian authorities given enough consideration to the democratic irrelevance of the so-called “historic” pact without the approval of the Indian Parliament as well as the US Congress? Even if this hurdle is crossed, has some thought been given to legal regulations, which must be adhered to by both the Indian and American authorities working on this project? Who would be held responsible and accountable if some nuclear accident occurs due to faulty planning or some other error? Have any such laws been framed or are Indian authorities intent on being guided by whatever the Bush Administration suggests? In this context, it may be noted, the issue of nuclear waste has not been smoothly resolved in the US too. Sometime back, during his weekly radio address, Bush laid stress on two major challenges facing the US. One was that of disposing nuclear waste safely and the other of keeping nuclear technology and material out of reach of the terrorists’ hands. American authorities, including Senator Hillary Clinton, have also acknowledged that reprocessing initiatives being considered by Bush are raising “more dangers and questions than answers”. While the US plans to deposit wastes from its 103 nuclear plants beneath the Yucca Mountain in Nevada from 2010, it has yet not overcome local protests and legal problems objecting to the same. So have the select Indian authorities, favouring the Indo-US nuclear deal, given some consideration to this fact? Besides, who is not aware that the Indian nuclear drive, be it for civilian purposes or weapon-oriented, is likely to be projected by Pakistan as a justification to proceed along the same path? Prospects of the same further provoking a nuclear race in the region cannot be sidelined.

Against this backdrop, to what extent can the US be trusted with ensuring a safe nuclear deal with India? Why should the US be trusted? As a member of the United Nations’ Security Council, when has the Bush Administration taken any step for which it can be trusted as being a responsible power interested in spreading peace and democracy? Or the nuclear deal, which may not be easily approved by the US Congress, could just be Washington’s strategy to make India adhere to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. While that would be a US victory, it would certainly spell defeat of the very principles on which India has always questioned the discriminatory nature of the NPT. Yes, with time, a nation must give due importance to adjusting, even changing, its diplomatic priorities. But this argument would have relevance if and only when the other party also shows the same willingness to adjust its diplomatic priorities.

Let us, let each Indian not be oblivious of the hard fact that nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for thousands of years, contains toxic elements putting the population at risk. When the United States has not yet developed a solution to this problem, why should India give the green signal to building civilian reactors here? If the Indian authorities are still willing and ready to put the health of the people and the security of the environment at risk, then democratic principles demand that the issue should be first put to vote at election time. It should not remain the prerogative of what a few select authorities consider without giving adequate importance to the needed legal regulations and feared risks.

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