The India-US joint statement of November 2010 stated that the US intends to support India’s ‘full membership’ in the multilateral export control regimes by encouraging the evolution of membership criteria, consistent with maintaining the core principles of these regimes, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – an informal arrangement of 48 countries to regulate the civil nuclear trade.
The US commitment was conditional to India’s “full adoption of the regimes’ export control requirements to reflect its prospective membership.”
The recent report published by the Belfer Center, ‘The Three Overlapping Streams of India’s Nuclear Programs’, highlights that instead of adopting the regimes’ requirements, India is moving on a completely different trajectory that not only negates the core principles of the NSG by misusing its special arrangements with the nuclear cartel, but is also rapidly expanding its nuclear weapons potential, which could contribute to “an arms race in South Asia.”
In 2008, India negotiated a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the US and submitted its nuclear separation plan to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was intended to differentiate between India’s civil and military nuclear facilities. The separation plan has, however, evolved into three different streams: civilian safeguarded, civilian unsafeguarded, and the military.
This unprecedented nuclear separation plan and India’s special safeguards agreement with the IAEA allows it to use foreign supplied fuel in its civilian unsafeguarded facilities by putting temporary safeguards in these facilities. There is no formal verification to know if the facilities designated as ‘civilian unsafeguarded’ are contributing nuclear material to India’s nuclear weapons programme.
Taking into consideration the fact that several of India’s Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) have reportedly been used as sources of weapons-grade plutonium for its military programme, this arrangement is cause for serious concern for countries like Pakistan, as India could use its unsafeguarded PHWRs to produce nuclear weapons in the future.
Another unique feature of India’s safeguards agreement is that it can substitute ‘unsafeguarded’ nuclear material for ‘safeguarded’ material with the IAEA’s consent, and “remove weapons-grade plutonium from safeguards and use it nuclear weapons, provided it places an equal amount of reactor-grade plutonium under safeguards”. It is also important to note that India’s reactor-grade plutonium is not subjected to safeguards and is available for the development of weapons. Combined together, “there is significant potential for India’s unsafeguarded stream to feed into its military stream.”
India has also declared that its Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs) would be exempt of the IAEA safeguards. These reactors, the prototype of which is expected to be online in the next few months, are capable of producing large quantities of plutonium, which could significantly enhance India’s fissile material capacity. India plans to build six additional FBRs. India’s upcoming Special Material Enrichment Facility (SMEF) has also been kept exempt of the safeguards, which is a cause for serious concern because of its “potential to produce large quantities of enriched uranium for thermonuclear weapons”.
India has a track record of misusing the Canadian-supplied ‘Cirus’ reactor for producing plutonium for its 1974 nuclear weapon test, “despite being under an obligation not to use the reactor or any products resulting from its use for military purposes.” This episode became the basis for the creation of the NSG in 1975. Ironically, the same NSG is now contemplating granting India full membership.
The Belfer Center report, written by two knowledgeable experts, has highlighted serious shortcomings in India’ safeguards and concludes that: “Safeguards should be used to provide meaningful assurance to all states, including Pakistan, that elements of India’s civil nuclear build up, particularly those that are being supported by international suppliers, are not contributing fissile material to India’s growing nuclear arsenal.”
The NSG members must take into consideration the serious implications of granting another discriminatory favour to India, by allowing it to become a formal member of the group, without asking it to rectify the existing anomalies.
Several NSG states that have entered into nuclear cooperation agreements with India, mainly for commercial gains, could possibly be assisting India’s nuclear weapons programme, without a verifiable mechanism of tracking the supplied material. This would not only nullify the very purpose of the NSG, but these countries should also be held accountable for violating their obligations under Article 1 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which makes it obligatory for member states not to assist (directly or indirectly) the nuclear weapons programme of any other country.
The eagerness of a few major powers to accommodate India within the group, for their short-sighted strategic and commercial interests, without addressing the gaps highlighted in the Belfer Center’s report, would only weaken the NPT-based non-proliferation regime. The responsibility for the eventual demise of the remaining non-proliferation norms will lie with the NSG and the major powers that are supporting India’s entry into the NSG.
Such discriminatory trends do not bode well for strategic stability, as they reduce the incentive for countries like Pakistan, which are directly affected by India’s massive nuclear build-up, to remain meaningfully engaged with the international non-proliferation regime.
The writer is visiting faculty at the NDU.