Vinod Mubayi


The opposition to the proposed 123 Indo-US nuclear deal in India can be divided into several categories: (1) anti-nuclear activists who are unalterably opposed to anything “nuclear” even if it is for peaceful uses, such as electricity production, either because of a belief in the inherent danger of ionizing radiation to environment, safety and health, or because of a perception that nuclear electricity and nuclear weaponry are inextricably linked, or a combination of both, (2) right-wing Indian nationalists who believe that the deal will impose unacceptable restrictions on India’s sovereign “great-power right” to further develop its nuclear weapons arsenal, and (3) left-wing Indian nationalists who feel that the deal will make India into a junior, subaltern partner of U.S. imperialist interests and curtail India’s foreign policy choices. 


There is some overlap between the interests of the groups falling into categories (2) and (3) as the left-wing parties’ opposition demonstrates.  The CPM, for example has contended, based on the statement issued by its Central Committee, that its opposition is due principally to the mention of the Hyde Act in the 123 agreement.  Adherence to the Hyde Act would imply India giving up any further ‘testing’ of nuclear weapons to either improve the current stockpile or develop new designs. This position is similar to that of the right-wing nationalists who have publicly expressed similar reservations although analysts have indicated the BJP’s position is totally opportunistic and mainly of the ‘sour grapes’ variety.  It would have been only too happy to have signed such a deal when it was in power a few years ago.


The main goal of the agreement is to open the world market to India for nuclear fuel and technology.  India was shut out of global nuclear trade over three decades ago after Pokhran I in 1974.  Following this ‘test’, which India claimed was a PNE (peaceful nuclear explosion), the U.S. and other countries constituted the Nuclear Suppliers Group or NSG (originally consisting of 7 countries now expanded to 45 countries) that set certain ground rules for nuclear energy related commerce.  Countries that had not signed the NPT were to be denied the opportunity to participate in nuclear energy trade.  However, NSG remains an informal grouping rather than a formal international treaty and, on occasion, its decisions are influenced by bilateral political considerations as evidenced by the Russian decision to sell the Koodankulam plants to India and China’s decision to supply the reactor at Chashma to Pakistan even though Russia and China are both members of NSG. Further restrictions were placed by the U.S. on India after Pokharan II in 1998.


It is intriguing why the CPM and other left parties and left intellectuals have chosen the nuclear agreement as their principal vehicle for expressing dissatisfaction with the UPA and Congress on the grounds of policy.  The statement put out by left intellectuals states that this deal “is part of a strategic design …pursued by the NDA and UPA governments…India is fast becoming member of a military alliance…that has far-reaching implications for our sovereignty, independent policy and relations with other Asian countries.”  In retrospect, it is surprising that this degree of opposition was not voiced when the Indo-US defense agreement, something that would appear to much more significant from a ‘military alliance’ standpoint, was signed by Pranab Mukherjee with his U.S. counterpart in June 2005, a few weeks before George Bush and Manmohan Singh initialed the nuclear deal.  T.P. Sreenivasan, a former Indian nominee on the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, stated that “The timing of the ‘do or die’ opposition of the Left to the nuclear deal has remained inexplicable. They had two long years to give a clear signal to the government … but they chose to raise the alarm bells only when the 123 Agreement was done.”


The opposition from the anti-nuclear activists can be summarized under the following grounds: (1) nuclear power plants are a more dangerous, more risky and more expensive way to generate electricity in comparison to conventional means (in India, mainly coal and, to some extent, hydro), (2) nuclear power, which currently accounts for about 3% of India’s electric capacity, may provide at best 5% or 7% or some other small percentage of a (vastly expanded) electric sector in the next two decades even with the deal allowing India to import plants and fuel; an amount they consider negligible and not worth entering into foreign entanglements or wasting resources on, and (3) there is an indissoluble link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons; this deal will permit India to divert its domestic uranium resources into fuel for weapons and hence promote a nuclear arms race in South Asia and add to global nuclear proliferation. 


As is natural for any large country, the choice of power generation technology has been influenced by domestic resource availability. India’s large reserves of coal have made coal-based power generation the technology of choice for the power sector and coal is likely to continue to expand its role in the foreseeable future based on projections made by Indian planners.  The other major resource in India is hydropower but, as the experience of the Narmada valley hydro projects shows, expansion of hydro faces many constraints caused by the problems of land submergence, loss of arable land and forests and displacement of populations.  Similarly, coal appears less expensive simply because the externalities of coal use, i.e., its extensive environmental and health impacts, both local and global, are not factored into the cost of coal. Local impacts include both those from extraction of coal (several thousands of miners, the majority in China but including several hundred in India, are killed every year in catastrophic accidents and many thousands more suffer from chronic pulmonary diseases) and combustion of coal in power plants (acid rain from emitted oxides of sulfur and nitrogen and leaching of highly toxic heavy metals and other carcinogens into soil and groundwater from ash disposal).  Global impacts of course relate to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming and its effect on sea levels, melting of glaciers, water availability, etc.  Even if India ignores local impacts, at some not too distant future, China, the U.S., and India, the current and future major users of coal worldwide, will come under intense international pressure to limit their carbon emissions. 


Some environmentalists in India, like the National Association of Peoples Movements (NAPM), talk of “the sun, wind, and waves” as the answer to India’s energy problems instead of nuclear energy.  In fact all these sources are valuable as India’s energy system is heavily supply constrained, particularly in the electric sector where there is a significant deficit of both capacity (megawatts) and energy (megawatt-hours) in relation to the demand, and this situation is also likely to persist in the future.  But renewable sources like solar and wind are not suited to baseload power generation like coal or nuclear (or baseload hydro) plants; in the jargon of power engineering, they are not “dispatchable” plants (unless supplemented by electric energy storage which would make them far too expensive) since their availability (and hence the amount of energy they generate) depends on the vagaries of the weather. One statistic to recall in this connection is that although installed wind capacity (megawatts) in India currently exceeds nuclear capacity by almost 50%, the actual electric energy generated by wind plants is considerably less than that generated by nuclear plants.  This does not imply in any way that wind energy is not valuable, it simply means that a mix of technologies is needed for power generation depending on which part of the load curve (base, intermediate, or peak load) they serve.


Given global warming, it is therefore only prudent for India to keep its supply choices in power generation open, and access to the international market for nuclear fuel and technology offers that opportunity to obtain wider, better and more efficient, and perhaps safer, technology options than what it can obtain through purely domestic effort.  This is the main important, long-term rationale behind the deal.


As far as proliferation is concerned, while knowledge of nuclear technology (and general engineering and scientific knowledge) can facilitate the acquisition of nuclear weapons, there is no necessary link or relation between the two. The desire to acquire nuclear weapons (or any other kind of mass destruction weapons, like chemical or biological weapons) arises mainly from two political considerations.  The first is threat perception on the part of a country and the development of a means to reduce or avert it. The second is a regime’s desire to impress or overawe other countries based on its military prowess as superpowers or imperialist countries have done.  History, however, has shown that political developments, such as a change of regime can lead to a change of policy and sever the perceived link between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. We have the example of South Africa, which operates nuclear power plants that acquired and tested a nuclear weapon under white minority rule but voluntarily abandoned it when democracy triumphed. Similarly, both Brazil and Argentina abandoned their weapons programs and signed the treaty of Tlatelcoco after their military regimes disappeared.  Logically, the same argument used by anti-nuclear activists to stop nuclear energy development should apply to stopping the development of chemical or bio-technology industries. It also seems probable that adherence to the deal will put some pressure on India to refrain from further weapons testing for fear of disrupting fuel supplies even if there are provisions in the agreement to deal with this eventuality.


As announced today (August 30, 2007) in the Hindu newspaper “government today announced the setting up of a Committee to go into their objections to the Indo-US nuclear deal, whose findings will be taken into account in the “operationalisation” of the agreement.”  This may be looked upon as just a political maneuver to save the face of either the Left parties or the Congress, whose differences on the nuclear deal had stretched their alliance in India’s parliament close to a breaking point. But it may be hoped that just as this Committee’s findings impact the future discussions between India and the IAEA and the NSG, such a committee will also make a positive impact by stressing the need for greater transparency of decision-making in the nuclear energy sector.  One such issue concerns the establishment of a statutorily independent body to oversee safety in plant design, construction and operation.  India is currently more like the United States before 1974 when the US Atomic Energy Commission both promoted and licensed the nuclear power plants for operation.  Post-1974, a statutorily independent body, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was created to license plants and oversee safety.  The current nuclear safety board in India reports to the Secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy, which tends to undermine its independence as a previous chairman of the board, Gopalakrishnan, pointed out over a decade ago. Different countries have evolved their own structures based on their unique circumstances and history. Whoever constitutes the safety board should not only be independent by statute but also have a knowledgeable and active staff and access to expertise that it can call on without getting into conflict-of-interest situations.  Hopefully, the Committee will also be able to go into this issue to increase public confidence in nuclear energy as a viable and safe source for power generation in India.

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