Diplomatic Enclave: Nuke Cooperation

The Indo-US nuclear energy cooperation agreement, signed a decade back, held India to be a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology

Diplomatic Enclave: Nuke Cooperation
Diplomatic Enclave: Nuke Cooperation

The Indo-US civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement was signed ten years ago. During the negotiations of the agreement varied objectives were put forward for concluding the pact, from meeting India’s energy needs, ending the restrictions on India’s access to advanced technology to better ties with the US. It was a landmark agreement, but in these ten years has it fulfilled the high expectations that were raised a decade ago?

The framework agreement that commenced the negotiations on the nuclear deal was announced on July 18, 2005 in a joint statement by Dr Manmohan Singh and then US President George W Bush in Washington. It took three years for the nuclear deal to come into existence through intense and hard negotiations that had to wade through the baggage of years of mistrust and suspicion on both sides.

Critics have questioned the benefits of the agreement that was meant to open up India’s nuclear energy sector to new technologies and investment. India opened its nuclear programme for international inspection and gave up its nuclear option without receiving much in return, they contend. Not even one nuclear reactor or one MW of nuclear energy has been added to India’s nuclear energy programme as a consequence of the agreement is the argument. Prolonged discussions with western nuclear companies have not resulted in commercial agreements for setting up nuclear reactors in India. The only new nuclear reactors under construction are Russian reactors and fresh Indian plans to build more indigenous reactors.

Though pushed by business lobbies in the US, and sold to the Indian public as means to meet India’s growing energy needs, the agreement had a much broader political objective. According to those involved in the negotiations of the nuclear agreement, it began the re-alignment of ties between India and the US. Washington was ready to build its ties with India.

The negotiations were initiated, not to sell nuclear reactors to India but to remove the main obstacle to closer Indo-US relations, which was the ban on transfer of nuclear technology to India. The civilian nuclear agreement with the US began the end of the nuclear apartheid that had denied India access to advanced technologies and dual-use equipment.

Commercial sale of nuclear reactors to India are in the works. The delay in negotiations is due to the tough conditions of the Indian liability law, the affect of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan on public sentiment and additional safety requirements it imposed. But, the lifting of the restrictions on sale of nuclear material, allowed New Delhi to import uranium supplies for the existing nuclear power plants. Indian nuclear reactors, which had been running critically low on uranium and operating at 35 percent of capacity, had assured uranium supplies.

The agreement held India to be a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology; it enabled India to obtain the same benefits and advantages as other states. It led to similar nuclear cooperation agreements with other countries including France, Canada, South Korea and Japan. With strong backing from the US, India received an exemption from the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, the nuclear technology control body that the US had set up mainly to curtail India’s nuclear programme. The exemption allowed India to trade in nuclear material and technology, without the precondition that India sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Ten years have changed India-US relations from what they were a decade earlier. The US is one of India’s top trade partners, it is a major supplier of arms to India and there is considerable cooperation in defence and counter-terrorism together with intelligence sharing. But neither Indo-US ties are at the same level as they were a couple of years earlier.  Washington is no longer as willing to put its full weight behind India on the question of India’s admission to the NSG, where China remains an important obstacle to India’s entry into the nuclear group.

Will China change its mind in the next few years? It would depend on Beijing’s attitude in the next few years. India has gained membership in three other proliferation control regimes, Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Wassennar Agreement and the Australia Group. The opposition India still faces in NSG indicates that there is still some opposition to India’s programme and India signing the NPT remains a factor for several NSG members.

The nuclear deal ended the three-decade long ban on nuclear trade with India. It provided India access to nuclear technology and materials and resulted in acceptance of India as a defacto nuclear weapons state. Cold war period western antipathy to India’s strategic autonomy has tapered off. It helped in changing the international perception of India as India became known as a leading high-growth emerging economy. There have been substantial gains from the nuclear agreement but nuclear energy has not been one of them.