India's Unused Nuclear Leverage

It requires iron will and strategic imagination which New Delhi has been short of, but China has in plenty

Published: 27th June 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th June 2014 11:58 PM   |  A+A-

The news that India had ratified the 1997 Additional Protocol permitting more intensive and intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle and research including nuclear installations and facilities excluded by the Indian government from the safeguards regime came as a shock. Especially as India did not condition its consent, as did the US in 1998, to the IAEA sticking to restrictive procedures for “appropriately managed access”. IAEA is hence free to inspect what it wants when it wants in order to get a “comprehensive picture” of India’s nuclear activity. Whatever happened to the dissatisfaction expressed in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto with the nuclear situation generally?

This development coming so soon after Narendra Modi assumed command suggests one of two things: Contrary to his party’s manifesto the prime minister had mulled the problem of how to advance India’s nuclear interests, and arrived at a definite view ere he assumed office that placating the US by buying its Westinghouse AP 1000-enriched uranium-fuelled light water reactors (LWRs) and thereby ensuring the country’s formal entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was best. Or, and this seems the more likely explanation, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) that has invested heavily in the Congress party-Manmohan Singh regime’s policy of nuclear giveaways used the excuse of the upcoming Washington meeting with US president Barack Obama to push its institutional agenda and secure Modi’s approval, as concurrently Minister for Atomic Energy, to “complete” the 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation deal with America.

The empowerment of the bureaucracy in Modi’s scheme of things without the prime minister first articulating a geostrategic vision and laying down new policy guidelines, put continuity of policy at a premium—something that was foreseen (“Modi’s ‘India First’ Agenda”, May 2, 2014). In this regard, the MEA was no doubt aided by the fact that neither Modi nor Sushma Swaraj, appointed as minister for external affairs, had other than limited exposure to international relations and the conduct of foreign policy would, therefore, be inclined to accept its advice. Except Swaraj was a stalwart of the parliamentary fight over the nuclear deal that, but for Amar Singh and his reportedly US-lubricated antics to convince the Samajwadi Party into supporting the ruling coalition, would have brought down the Manmohan Singh government on July 8, 2008. And she was in the forefront of the opposition move to blunt the nuclear deal by forcing the Congress regime to accept the 2010 Civilian Nuclear Liability Act. Apparently, by the time foreign secretary Sujatha Singh and officials in the disarmament and international security division briefed the minister, Swaraj had forgotten the reasons why the BJP had opposed the nuclear deal that Washington desperately wanted and the weak-minded Manmohan Singh fell in with, and failed to counsel rethink to the PM.

There reportedly was not much discussion in Modi’s office, and the contra-viewpoint championed, other than this analyst, by the late P K Iyengar, ex-chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, A N Prasad, former director, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, and A Gopalakrishnan, ex-chairman, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, that informed the BJP’s thinking when in opposition, was ignored. Let’s therefore enumerate some important reasons why the original nuclear deal was bad and follow-up actions such as signing the Additional Protocol are, too. One, the nuclear deal torpedoes the 1955 three-stage Bhabha Plan based on large reserves in-country of thorium for energy self-sufficiency by diverting attention, effort, and monies from the pressurised heavy water reactor (PHWR) technology (first stage) India has specialised in, and from speedily developing for subsequent stages the breeder reactor, and upscaling the Kamini thorium experimental reactor to funding the purchase of exorbitantly-priced foreign LWRs. These reactors costing $6-7 billion per 1,000MW plant will produce unaffordable electricity at `40-50 a unit at present prices! Two, uninterrupted operation of the string of foreign LWRs will become hostage to India’s good behaviour in the economic and foreign policy fields as the supply of nuclear fuel packages and spares can be choked at any time. Thus, the dependency syndrome that prevails with respect to conventional armaments will now be replicated in the nuclear energy sector. Three, the position of foreign supplier countries will be further strengthened with regard to shaping India’s foreign policy choices by threats of extraordinary economic disruption of, say, 10,000MW of power from the imported reactors going off the grid. Four, these things will happen if India resumes nuclear testing, which it needs to do to remove design flaws in its thermonuclear weapons. Five, in which case, tens of billions of dollars invested in these white elephants will become radioactive waste, needing expensive vitrification and entombment. And finally, with all but eight of the PHWRs under safeguards, the country’s capacity for surge production of weapons-grade plutonium has been severely hurt. Is the goodwill of the US worth surrendering “strategic autonomy”?

India never needed membership in NSG to export its 220MW PHWRs and related technologies to eager Third World states. Had it, as a non-signatory to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, done so in the past 20 years, the country by now would have had a flourishing nuclear industry, a tier of countries tied to India outside the non-proliferation structures, and amortised the huge public investment in the nuclear energy programme. Some African countries, moreover, could have paid for these reactors with their natural uranium reserves. Besides propelling the Bhabha Plan, it would have meant exercising hard leverage as spoiler that could have been used to extract the rights and privileges of a nuclear weapons-state and NSG membership from the US.

It requires iron will and strategic imagination which New Delhi has always been short of, but China has in plenty. Time and again the US, Russia, and Western Europe have been shoved to the wall, and Beijing has compelled respectful treatment from them in return for promising not to do worse! It is why China is advantaged and India is not, and why they are so differently placed in the emerging world order.

The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at

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