- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 15, 2007


On July 18, 2005, President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Singh agreed in principle to closer U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation. If finalized, this agreement would reopen India’s access to the international market for peaceful nuclear materials and technology, which it lost after detonating a nuclear explosion in 1974. A detailed bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Indian governments is under negotiation, but in the most recent round of related talks India and the United States failed to resolve their differences.

Some U.S. nuclear nonproliferation experts would welcome failure of the Bush-Singh initiative, contending the proposed cooperation increases the potential for proliferation of nuclear weapons. However, from the standpoint of weapons material production, quantitative assessments by the Nuclear Security Science and Policy Institute at Texas A&M; University show that under most measures the proposed cooperation would be helpful, or at worst neutral, to the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. The cooperation would place some 30-odd additional Indian nuclear facilities, including eight reactors, under international safeguards and shut down one of their plutonium production reactors.

India now produces only an estimated two to four nuclear weapons annually, though its existing nuclear infrastructure is capable of producing 30 or more weapons per year. Achieving these higher weapon production rates would require re-optimizing India’s electricity-producing nuclear reactors to produce weapons-grade material, substantially reducing electrical output. Instead, India has chosen to emphasize production of electricity over weapons.

The Bush-Singh initiative makes U.S.-origin civil nuclear fuel available to India, augmenting limited indigenous uranium supplies and enabling expansion of India’s electricity-producing nuclear reactors. Failure of the Bush-Singh nuclear initiative would aggravate India’s uranium supply problem.

The resulting disruption of India’s nascent nuclear power industry could provide substantial support for currently weak ultranationalists who would prefer India’s limited domestic uranium supply be used for weapons rather than civil energy.

Such a significant policy reversal would be feasible because India’s nuclear power reactors account for only about 2½ percent of the nation’s electricity production. Alternatively, if India sufficiently increased its indigenous uranium production or negotiated fuel supplies from other nations, most likely Russia or France, its electricity-over-weapons policy could continue. However, these eventualities are highly uncertain, and they would leave India’s civil nuclear program to evolve without the proliferation-ameliorating influence of American industry or government.

One key obstacle reportedly exists to cooperation: whether India will be allowed to reprocess U.S.-supplied fuel to feed its planned, electricity-producing fast reactors. U.S. policy has long resisted reprocessing, because of the proliferation potential of conventional reprocessing technology and the absence of compelling economic arguments. The current worldwide resurgence of interest in nuclear power potentially affects the latter consideration. New reprocessing technologies in the offing could address the former.

Research into these possibilities originally motivated the U.S. Energy Department’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership program. This program could provide a basis for cooperative activities that allow Indian reprocessing of U.S.-supplied fuel under appropriate International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards to ensure there are no diversions to weapons production.

Certainly there are other important geostrategic and commercial reasons for the United States and India to cooperate. However, from the present nonproliferation perspective, the Bush-Singh initiative is a broadly constructive option that the U.S. should pursue. Few important things are easy to accomplish, and the Bush-Singh initiative is no exception.

However, there are ways of getting agreed cooperation in this case, ways that also serve nonproliferation. Is the mutual will there? Or will this simply become yet one more of the history of missed opportunities chronicled so tellingly in Dennis Kux’s book, “India and the United States: Estranged Democracies?”

David R. Boyle is a retired Air Force officer and former national nuclear weapons stockpile manager for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Warren F. Miller is a research professor at Texas A&M; University and former deputy director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, a fellow of the American Nuclear Society and a member of the National Academy of Engineers. Paul Nelson is professor emeritus of computer science, nuclear engineering and mathematics at Texas A&M; University and a fellow of the American Nuclear Society. All authors are affiliated with Texas A&M;’s Nuclear Security Science and Policy Institute. The opinions expressed are their own.

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