On 18 May 1974, India detonated a nuclear device with an official yield of 12 kilotons, a bit smaller than the ”Little Boy” bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The plutonium that fueled the Pokhran blast came from reprocessed spent fuel from the Canadian-supplied CIRUS reactor. As a result, as the Canadian minister of trade and commerce, Mitchell Sharp, put it, ”Trust between the two countries was gone.” Years later, Raja Ramanna, the architect of the 1974 test, said at a public meeting, ”The Pokhran test was a bomb, I can tell you now.” Prodded by journalists, he added: ”An explosion is an explosion, a gun is a gun, whether you shoot at someone or shoot at the ground.”
India's test triggered serious international repercussions. Most significantly, it prompted various Western countries to form the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which restricts the export of nuclear technologies and materials to countries such as India that refuse to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. To some degree, the NSG's restrictions achieved their desired effect. All nuclear facilities built in India since 1974 have experienced delays and have repeatedly been scaled back. Replacement parts became harder to acquire, and Indian nuclear engineers found their foreign counterparts far less willing to help them solve technical problems.
But the sanctions did nothing to discourage India from surreptitiously continuing its research and development of nuclear weapons. In 1998, the country finally came clean. On 11 and 13 May, it conducted two tests that each consisted of multiple explosions, including one that India claimed was a 45-kiloton hydrogen bomb--though independent analyses of seismic data indicate that the bomb's yield was actually a fraction of the size. Two weeks later, Pakistan followed suit with its own nuclear tests. South Asia had become, in the words of U.S. President Bill Clinton, ”the most dangerous place in the world”--and also the focus of renewed U.S. strategic interest.
A diplomatic transition did not take place overnight. Although Clinton traveled to New Delhi in 2000 to meet with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and discuss ”strategic” partnerships, his administration refused to resume civilian nuclear cooperation, despite much interest from the Indian side. It was only when President George W. Bush came to power in 2001 that a different perspective on India took shape.
The previous year, Bush's national security advisor-to-be, Condoleezza Rice, had argued in a Foreign Affairs article that the United States should recognize India as a counterweight to China. This idea was echoed by other strategists, including Ashley Tellis, who helped design the civil nuclear agreement with India. ”If the United States is serious about advancing its geopolitical objectives in Asia, it would almost by definition help New Delhi develop strategic capabilities such that India's nuclear weaponry and nuclear forces could deter against the growing and utterly more capable nuclear forces Beijing is likely to possess by 2025,” Tellis wrote in a report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, D.C., where he is a senior associate.
For the Bush administration, India's emergence as a de facto nuclear weapons state was to be embraced, not punished. That shift in attitude was formalized in December 2006, when Bush signed a bill amending the U.S. Atomic Energy Act--the first step toward reversing a three-decade ban on nuclear trade with India. Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. ambassador to India and deputy national security advisor, summed up the administration's thinking in a March 2005 Wall Street Journal opinion piece: ”Why should the United States want to check India's missile capability in ways that could lead to China's permanent nuclear dominance over democratic India?” And why, he might have added, should U.S. companies forgo lucrative opportunities with Indian customers, when suppliers in other countries--indifferent to New Delhi's nuclear weapons status--would be rushing in to do business?
Should the pact be sealed, India will allow inspectors from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency to regularly survey its civilian nuclear facilities. India, in turn, will be eligible to import uranium to fuel those civilian reactors that undergo inspection. It will also be able to purchase light-water reactors, the most popular reactor type worldwide. However, the country is under no obligation to allow safeguards on all of its civilian reactors. U.S. companies, for their part, will gain a foothold in a newly opened economy.
Some hurdles, however, remain. India and the United States are still negotiating the terms for importing uranium. The IAEA must nail down the details of the India-specific safeguards, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group will need to agree to amend its rules to permit trade between the United States and India.
Even before the deal has gone through, the U.S.-India pact has revived the DAE's hopes for a large-scale expansion of nuclear power. But the actual economics of the deal may prove sobering for the DAE. Light-water reactors are expensive: a 1''GW light-water reactor costs roughly $1.5 billion to $2 billion, compared with about $1.2 billion for a heavy-water reactor of the same size--which increases the unit cost of electricity generation by up to 25 percent. Unless foreign companies offer cheap loans, Indian electricity consumers are unlikely to be able to afford many imported light-water reactors.
What's more, the agreement is likely to increase--not decrease--India's capacity to produce nuclear weapons and material. By importing uranium, India will be able to channel its native supply toward military purposes. In fact, K. Subrahmanyam, a former head of India's National Security Advisory Board and, since the 1960s, India's most prominent nuclear weapons advocate, has openly called for giving as many power reactors as possible civilian designation in order to conserve domestic uranium for the production of weapons-grade plutonium. My colleagues and I estimate that India already has approximately 500 kg of weapons-grade plutonium, sufficient for roughly 100 nuclear warheads--and Indian nuclear weapons advocates are clearly interested in stockpiling more.
There is also the possibility that those nuclear reactors not subject to IAEA inspection will be converted to military ends. Any power reactor not under safeguards can be used to make weapons-grade plutonium by limiting the time the fuel is irradiated. This prevents the build-up of higher isotopes of plutonium, which are undesirable in a weapon. When a typical heavy-water reactor is operated normally, fuel remains inside the reactor seven times as long as when it is producing weapons-grade plutonium. Heavy-water reactors are particularly suited to making bomb-grade material, because new fuel is continuously added (and old fuel continuously removed); this type of reactor could produce the same amount of electricity every year but would use seven times as much fuel to do so. In theory, a 220-MW heavy-water reactor, run at 60 to 80 percent capacity, could produce 150 to 200 kg per year of weapons-grade plutonium.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has demanded a similar deal from the United States. The U.S. government has refused, ostensibly because of Pakistan's poor nonproliferation record--in particular, the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan's long-running illicit trade network, which provided nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea. Undaunted, Pakistan's agency in charge of nuclear weapons, the National Command Authority, issued a statement saying it will expand its own arsenal, which currently is estimated to have between 65 and 75 nuclear warheads, in response to India's increased capacity for generating weapons.
In other words, what happens in India, and the choices it makes, will resonate both regionally and globally. India's myopic focus on expanding its civilian and military nuclear program threatens to exacerbate the arms race with Pakistan while ignoring the urgent local need for clean, affordable electricity.
Instead of digging deeper into the nuclear rut, India should invest even more heavily in renewable electricity generation and improve its energy efficiency in many sectors. For instance, India could expand its use of wind power--it already has the world's fourth-largest installed wind capacity--as well as solar, biomass and small-scale hydropower. There's huge room for improvement in its coal plants, which are significantly less efficient than those in other countries; losses during electricity transmission and distribution are typically about 25 percent, compared with 10 percent in many countries. And the environmental impact of coal, both in terms of carbon emissions and the health effects of pollution, must be addressed.
Between its burgeoning economy and a population that is projected to eclipse China's by 2050, India has difficult choices to make regarding its energy future. Nuclear power, however, is not an affordable--or desirable--answer for India.
About the Author
M.V. Ramana is a senior fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, in Bangalore, India, where he researches India's nuclear energy and weapons programs. He is on the National Coordinating Committee of India's Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace and the Global Council of Abolition2000, a network aiming to abolish nuclear weapons. His papers are available at http://www.geocities.com/m_v_ramana/nuclear.html.