India’s pursuit of membership in the 48-nation nuclear technology cartel -- the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) -- is driven primarily by prestige and to secure legitimacy for its de-facto nuclear weapon status. It is also about gaining access to enrichment, reprocessing and advanced reactor technologies that has been so far denied to India and wider access at high-end dual use technologies that are not shared outside the 48-member group.
Just as prestige has been a major factor that drove India’s quest for nuclear weapons and its pursuit of a very large and ambitious civilian nuclear power and nuclear fuel cycle programme, its increasing international clout and soft power coupled with sustained economic growth has served to embolden its self-image as a rising power -- entitled to global ambitions. This is one major element in a long wish list that includes, among other things, membership in other technology control arrangements such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, and a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Entry into the NSG at this stage, however, will not grant India any additional material benefits. These have already been secured in the shape of numerous deals with supplier states for the acquisition of nuclear fuel and power reactors -- enabled by the 2008 exceptional waiver granted by the NSG in the wake of the Indo-US civil nuclear deal. Ten years ago, those arguing in favour of granting these unprecedented concessions conveniently turned a blind eye that it was India’s 1974 nuclear test -- dubbed the Smiling Buddha -- which resulted from illicit diversion of spent fuel for obtaining plutonium used in that test from a civilian research reactor (CIRUS).
In a complete volte-face the nuclear supplier states that created the NSG (then the London Group) in 1975 due to proliferation concerns raised by India’s perfidy are contemplating its inclusion. Paradoxically, that sounds like a death knell of the NSG and the non-proliferation regime.
Back in 2008, the NSG’s participating governments provided India a wavier enabling it to enter into nuclear cooperation agreements. Thanks to American pressure, none of the Participating Governments in the NSG tried to recall that India being a non-NPT state, was not bound by non-proliferation obligations as ensconced in the Treaty.
If the US is able to secure India NSG’s membership like it sponsored the 2008 waiver, the country will make history by surpassing those states which gave up their right to make nuclear weapons in a bargain to get peaceful nuclear technology.
Once formally part of the cartel, India has made no bones earlier that it cannot stand in the same grouping where Pakistan does. India already considers Pakistan a different case and will usurp the consensus rule permanently block Pakistan’s entry into the NSG. The potential to jeopardize Sino-Pakistan civil nuclear cooperation under safeguards also cannot be ruled out.
Realising the potential for generating regional instability and undermining global non-proliferation objectives, Chinese and American experts have voiced serious reservations for pushing India’s hasty inclusion in the NSG. In fact, in a letter to all the participating governments of the NSG, 17 leading US non-proliferation experts have stated that it is our assessment that any further country-specific exemptions from NSG guidelines for trade and/or membership without compensating steps to strengthen non-proliferation and disarmament would increase nuclear dangers in South Asia, and weaken the NSG and the broader nuclear non-proliferation regime.
Mark Hibbs, senior associate in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Programme and a leading authority on nuclear industry and energy programmes, has suggested that the NSG should “continue with the process of fact-finding and consensus building” before India’s case for membership is accepted. Any informed and objective fact finding mission designed to examine if India’s credentials for membership would promote the principles of non-proliferation shall validate the arguments made by critics of the Indo-US civil nuclear deal.
Whereas a decade ago, the reasons for opposing civilian nuclear cooperation with India were presumptive, and the projected risks to global non-proliferation efforts were deemed inflated, the current status, scope, and scale of India’s nuclear programme -- both for nuclear weapons and nuclear energy -- shows that the critics were accurate in their judgment.
Today, India has largest unsafeguarded civil nuclear and unsafe -- military programme in the world. It has refused to sign the CTBT or the FMCT -- and is developing a triad which includes nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines, ICBMs, SLBMs, dual-use cruise and ballistic missiles and a very large naval expansion designed to project power beyond the region.
Under the IAEA nuclear separation plan, India included only those facilities on the civilian list and offered them for safeguards “that, after separation, will no longer be engaged in activities of strategic significance.” In this respect, the overarching criterion was the “judgement whether subjecting a facility to IAEA safeguards would impact adversely on India’s national security.”
Guided by these principles, that were accepted not only by the IAEA but the NSG as the basis of India’s nuclear facilities’ separation plan, India was able to retain a large number of fissile material production, nuclear fuel cycle and associated facilities outside IAEA safeguards. These include eight heavy water power reactors, the breeder programme, heavy water production plants, plutonium production and research reactors and uranium enrichment and fuel reprocessing facilities. No other non-NPT nuclear-armed state has such a huge nuclear enterprise.
Since the conclusion of the Indo-US civil nuclear deal and the NSG waiver in 2008, India has stockpiled more fissile material for nuclear weapons and has also retained all of its weapon-usable civil or reactor-grade plutonium outside safeguards -- which is ostensibly being justified to be used as fuel for India’s breeder reactors -- the first of which, a 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor has yet to be commissioned after several years of delay.
While India plans five more breeder reactors, fuelling these will consume only a small proportion of India’s unsafeguarded civil plutonium -- while expansion in India’s dedicated plutonium production reactors continues with the construction of a second 125 MWt Dhruva-II reactor and a 30 MWt research reactor -- surpassing Pakistan’s existing plutonium production capacity.
India is also doubling its dual-use reprocessing capability from a nominal 350 tHM/year to 900 tHM/year by 2018. This is again intended to separate large quantities of civil plutonium (15 to 32 tons according to international estimates) for the second-stage of India’s three-stage nuclear power programme.
Even if India is able to commission its first 500 MWe PFBR, and is able to add more to the list, each one will produce 140 kg of weapons-grade and large quantities of weapons-usable reactor-grade plutonium each year. India has already designated its civil plutonium stockpile as “strategic” which is stated to be used in the breeder reactors which are also part of India’s strategic programme.
According to the former Chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission Dr. Anil Kakodkar, “Both, from the point of view of maintaining long-term energy security and for maintaining the ‘minimum credible deterrent,’ the fast breeder programme just cannot be put on the civilian list. This would amount to getting shackled and India certainly cannot compromise one [security] for the other.”
India’s centrifuge enrichment programme is also being expanded on the same principles, again ostensibly designed to produce naval propulsion highly enriched uranium fuel for India’s nuclear submarines. But IHS Janes and other studies have concluded that India’s rapid expansion of its enrichment capabilities will allow it to produce at least 160 kg of weapons-grade HEU in excess of its naval propulsion requirements, which can be used in its nuclear and hydrogen bomb programmes.
No other country in the world has such overlaps in its nuclear energy and weapons programmes or has such a large infrastructure outside safeguards which is claimed to be only for civil energy purposes. This all leads to only one conclusion that India is seeking to stockpile several tons of weapon-usable plutonium and HEU which it can keep in reserve for future expansion of its weapons programme. Should such a country be trusted to enter a group on non-proliferation that seeks the opposite?
If the promise of its three-stage nuclear energy programme is still realistic and is intended only for peaceful uses, then it is only logical to place all such facilities under IAEA safeguards. The NSG violated the principles of the NPT while granting India a waiver in 2008. If it chooses to make yet another exception by including India in the NSG -- without any verified and tangible steps towards strengthening non-proliferation -- the NSG will only serve to fortify an anarchic nuclear order. The signatories of the NPT should feel betrayed that while they retained their part of bargain of not building nuclear weapons, the nuclear-haves have broken their vows by admitting a non-NPT nuclear power at their cost. This would potentially open a Pandora’s box, destroy the spirit of the NPT and cause irreversible damage to the regime that is already viewed by many as discriminatory. The international non-proliferation regime can only be made more effective if it’s champions stand up to their principles and ask India to wait till it accedes to the NPT unconditionally, signs the CTBT and enters into the fold of the FMCT.
Dr Mansoor Ahmed is Stanton Nuclear Security Junior Faculty Fellow, International Security Programme, Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School.
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