Indo-US nuclear deal going nowhere?
Is it not time for an experts vs common man debate?

As I write, our negotiators in the Indo-US nuclear deal are packing their bags to board the plane for Washington. The deal first proposed, the “historic agreement between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George Bush on July 18,2005” when the US President visited India, is now, after two years of  thought negotiations, facing the choppy waters, according to the Reuters report from Washington.

Only last week the Indian Prime Minister talked to the US President over the phone and before that last month the PM also did meet the President briefly in Germany at the G-8 meet. Yet, we, the general public in India, don’t have a clue as to what is the outcome of these two latest personal one- to-one encounters between the two authors of this deal.

Nuclear deal with the US is a serious matter and as such responsible comments and also responsible roles by the star players would be in order. But as things are being debated, right now, it looks; the Prime Minister seems to stand alone or getting isolated from the other core players. The foreign minister Mr.Pranab Mukerjee maintains a studied silence. This is intriguing and the same time gives room for much unease. For Mr.Mukerjee is known for his wisdom and articulation. To keep him out of the picture, as it seems, gives room for much disquiet about the strategy on the part of the Indian Prime Minister. We should also know that the American President stands on a different plane than the Indian Prime Minister who is accountable to Parliament. It is in this context we have to see the shifting strategies, by adding one or two more new members in the negotiating team at the last minute and also keeping out the more mature people. Also, the thoughts of Opposition leaders like the former Prime Minister from the decision-making process in a democracy like ours, is also not meant to add more legitimacy to the deal. The Left is also silent and not rising up to the seriousness of the issue. What new constructive inputs the Left have brought to the table?

Even in the latest report that is published in the newspapers there is an ominous hint that while in the telephonic talk on the deal the subject “figured prominently” and yet in the PMO statement curiously there is not one word, the “N-word” anywhere! What sort of high level official negotiations is this, if even the routine reports are becoming very choosy and always looks like media management on the part of the PMO  even in such basic matters like educating the public truthfully. That is a very disturbing trend we see in New Delhi lately and also so casually and even callously. This is rather a very unacceptable behaviour on the part of officials as well on the part of leaders who must inspire confidence and a sense of security among the elites as well as the mass of people.

Any talk of nuclear power is shrouded in secrecy in India. This has almost become a state policy and nobody seem to bother. The nuclear scientists themselves have to share the blame, they haven’t enlightened the public, and they haven’t educated the public and helped to form an informed and intelligent public opinion on such an important subject.

Now, as for the Indo- US nuclear deal, there have been luckily, this time, much more open debate among the scientists themselves and there have also been sharp differences of opinion among them. The majority view of the atomic scientists seems to be that the present deal, as it has been concluded and as it has now been presented by the US is one-sided and certainly not in the interests of the country. Unless of course certain key provisions are incorporated by keeping India’s interests in view.

The subject has now acquired  some urgency with the deal entering the “make or break” zone, some in the American Congress calling the deal as almost lost, a sinking ship and even others in the Indian establishment expressing strong reservations over the deal.

Dr.P.K.Iyengar, a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), calling the deal actually as a sinking ship!

Others like M.R.Srinivasan, another former chairman of the AEC and now currently again a member of the AEC also has expressed his reservations in a series of articles. In the latest one(The Hindu, July 13,2007) Dr.Srinivasan says  many things, many conditions that first to be fulfilled American side and also make some useful suggestions about what the Americans should agree to do to make the deal a success.

In this highly complex issue certain things stand out for the knowledge of the common man and that needs to be widely debated if the deal, if and when it reaches its final destination would at least help the country to appreciate what it was all about.

One, India wants to have American nuclear technology as well as the key fuel, that is, India’s right to reprocess the spent fuel of the US or other overseas origin. If India wants to proceed further, India needs this spent fuel reprocessing right to separate plutonium from spent fuel. This is an essential prerequisite. This the Americans are not willing to agree.

Americans also don’t want India to become a nuclear weapons state and the first condition from the American side is the refusal to recognise India as such.

Second, this India is unwilling to agree. Our argument is that India has to have its sovereign rights uncompromised. But the point is that in such matters like nuclear weapon proliferation there are certain areas where every country can’t go ahead and do whatever it wants in nuclear power generation and the US and for the matter the international community imposes certain obligations. The point here is not one of one wanting to be a patriot or not. It is one of agreeing with the international trend or India insisting the USA to make the exception not only to co-operate with the civil nuclear programme but also allow India the rights to proceed further, that is to even undertake weapon grade materials.

This is the crucial point, the crucial truth everyone is unwilling not to discuss so openly.
Third, India has entered into this deal almost without even informing Parliament and even now willing for a debate .Senior leaders like Vajpayee and V.P.Singh have urged that the deal must be discussed and ratified by Parliament. For which there is no response from the Prime Minister.

This is rather unfortunate. The Prime Minister can’t be said to the originator of the deal. In fact, the nuclear co-operation talk was initiated during the NDA regime by Jaswant Singh and the US assistant Secretary of State. So, the nuclear deal is almost an all-party affair and there has to be much transparency so that there is a popular backing to what the PM is doing.
Fourth, the PM is not an expert on the subject nor is there any indication that the deal had been cleared after any thorough scrutiny. The larger concern has to be about the state of the nuclear proliferation in the world, in our own region. There are some   well-established international treaties like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and also the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

Yes, India is known for its call for a universal disarmanent regime. But this must not be a pious act and at the same time you can go ahead with developing your nuclear weapons! This is what India is trying to do with the current deal by making use of the nuclear fuel from the USA and using the same under the pretext of civil nuclear programme we would be wanting to reprocess the spent fuel for future reactors that could produce weapon grade material. Here is the basic and fundamental contradiction which the Americans are also trying to prevent under the so-called Hyde Act.

It is pertinent here to point out how in the past our nuclear establishment functioned and went ahead to produce the nuclear explosion at Pokhran in May 1974.Ashok Parthasarathi who worked directly under Mrs.Indira Gandhi as her  scientific adviser narrates in his latest book(Technology at the core-Science and Technology with Indira Gandhi, Pearson-Longman) says that “the grandiose profile ” for atomic energy proposed by Sarabhai and later Homi Sethna in 1971 and 1972,the former envisaged 2700 MW of electricity generation capacity through nuclear power by 1980,the latter 4,500 MW by 1985 proved to be pipe dreams! The actual achievement in 2000 was only 2,800 MW!

Also more to the present concern, the Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS), the US-built one and the denial of the reprocessing rights has led to the accumulation of a vast acreage of dangerous spent fuel. Tracing the problem back to the flawed agreement on fuel supply with the US, he says, the problem could have been resolved when the agreement expired in 1993.”With TAPS itself a serious hazard, one would have thought, the government which had to deal with the problem of radiation emission management from the spent fuel storage tanks would have had the courage to bite the bullet and at least shut down TAPS”. He laments that all Prime Ministers from Indira Gandhi onwards “have allowed the deadly reactor to continue to operate” and generate highly radioactive spent fuel.

The book is worth reading now, specially in the context of the current nuclear deal, the economics and the technological feasibility of which the country hardly knows anything, if at all. Or, anyone, more so the learned scientists taking upon themselves to enlighten the public with what Mr.Parthasarathi has said and what they got to say on further allaying the fears about the radioactive emissions of the spent fuel. There are many issues like unfactored costs in running and capacity utilisation costs, the ultimate disposal and reactor entombment costs etc.

Finally, one basic consideration remains. That is the question of whether India wants to become a nuclear weapon state or not. Whatever we might say for public consumption, the fact remains that we have already tested the nuclear weapons and we have also contributed to the nuclear armament race with Pakistan following suit and also now Iran threatening programmes.

The issues are quite complex. America is not a consultant to India as to our nuclear policy. But at the same time we can’t dismiss the American concerns about the nuclear proliferation. This we have to take note and must play our part. It is not a question of our sovereignty or about our patriotism. It is true we have problems states as our neighbours.

There is much work needs to be done. Civil nuclear programme is one route to build our energy security. Its contribution to any country’s energy needs is often questioned. In our own energy needs nuclear energy plays only a small percentage contribution. Nuclear power can’t solve the world’s energy needs at any time, says a recent Oxford Research Group report. Also, there are studies, at the University College, London, that the future energy needs could be secured through non-conventional alternative sources, from wind and solar and other alternative sources. There are any number of such studies.

Now, it is disputed that even our energy requirements are not factored into the nuclear deal, says one critic. Even the scathing criticism that Manmohan Singh’s “seemingly stubborn simpleton-ism, acquiescing in the ‘no testing’ condition will result in India’s entering the CTBT by the back door’. These are all ominous signs of a deal whose real end use might not be in the over- all national interest, it is feared.

The point is that while we are faced with an impossible task of meeting our growing energy needs, our hydro and thermal power sector can still play a big role. Alternative sources also need to be explored, international co-operation as in the Iran gas pipeline etc.
As for the Indo-US nuclear deal, it is better to be wise and patient. May be after 2009, when the US has a new President and India a new duly elected Prime Minister, the deal might acquire a new legitimacy and a more acceptable format.

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