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OPINION / ANALYSIS

Indo-US Nuclear Deal: Ten Years After

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AJEY LELE
July 20, 2015

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a successful trip to Central Asia and Russia in the past weeks. Various new collaborations -- from tourism to terrorism -- got formalized during these visits. One important agenda of this visit was to acquire uranium required for nuclear energy production. Mr. Modi was successful in working out various modalities in this regard with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. Few months back he also collaborated with Canada and Australia in regards to trade of uranium to India. Interestingly, today India is able to freely purchase uranium because of the boldness shown by Mr. Manmohan Singh ten years back.  The framework for the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal agreement was signed on July 18, 2005, which essentially is responsible for allowing India to acquire uranium.
 
Owing to the nuclear tests conduced by India during 1974 and 1998 (Pokhran I & II), for almost three decades India was put under harsh sanctions. No country was allowed to transfer or sale the sensitive technology to India. All this had led to what is famously known as India’s Technological Apartheid causing major problems to India’s defense, nuclear and space sectors. For example, India’s space program suffered considerably because the Russians were permitted to transfer the cryogenic technology to India. Hence, even today, India is not able to launch heavy satellites on its own. The good aspect of this Technological Apartheid was that the Indian scientists took the challenge and developed various technologies on their own. Hence, today India can boast of having various successful indigenous technological programs. However, all this look time and India was not able to make the desired progress. Today, in this globalised world it is impractical to develop every technology at home. Also, some minerals like uranium are not available in abundance within India’s geographical boundaries.
 
The US-India nuclear deal took more than three years to come to fruition as it had to go through several complex stages, including amendment of US domestic law, especially the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.  On its part, India has broadly undertaken a civil-military nuclear separation plan. Now, international atomic energy agency (IAEA) can undertake official inspections of India’s non-military nuclear establishments. Subsequently, the 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) granted the waiver to India on September 6, 2008 allowing it to access civilian nuclear technology and fuel from other countries. This is why Modi has been successful now to ink agreements for uranium purchase.
 
On the tenth anniversary of this deal, it is important to do a dispassionate analysis of the recent history. More than any political dispensation (say UPA-1 in India or the Republicans in the US), it could be said that this deal was achieved essentially because of the personalities. Presently, nuclear energy meets only 2 to 3 percent of India’s overall energy needs. However, for clean and sustainable energy for future, India needs to invest in nuclear technology significantly. Mr. Manmohan Singh was also aware that this deal is actually the key to take India out of the sanctions regime. In reality, more than the nuclear energy, this deal helps to secure India’s strategic interests. ‘Rise of China’ is a reality and it is fast gaining a superpower status. Naturally, it was in India’s interest to get out of any technological and hence strategic apartheid. Today, India is in a position to buy whatever technology (military or civil) it wants from global market. We have developed strategic partnerships with various countries. We have increased our scale of joint military exercises with many countries. Mr Singh had more of a mute support from his party and no support from the opposition. But, he was convinced and he had put his entire political prestige at stake to ensure that this deal gets through.   
 
For President Bush also it was not an easy journey. Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been the cornerstone of the US foreign policy since early seventies. Accepting any nuclear deal with India was going against the principles that the US had championed so far. Probably, the economist in Mr. Singh made Bush see the point that such deal offers the US an opportunity to revive its dying nuclear industry with almost $100 to $150 billion worth business for grab in the next decade. It is also important to take in to account a very important role played on the sidelines by the Indian Diaspora at that time.
 
Unfortunately, the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan came as a bolt from the blue for this deal. India has not been able to make much of a progress owing to safety and liability issues raised thereafter. During the January 2015 visit by the US President Mr. Barack Obama’s visit to India it has been announced that a ‘breakthrough understanding’ had been reached on operationalizing this deal. However, issues concerning the risk management still remain unresolved. Also, the issues concerning holding suppliers liable for any ‘accident’ are not yet fully addressed. It would take much more time and significant amount of diplomatic and legal bargaining to ensure that this deal starts offering actual benefits envisaged by the original makers of this deal. Fortunately, the US is not the only supplier of the nuclear energy technology to India. France, Russia and few other states are keen to do nuclear reactor business with India and India has already started engaging them. Regrettably enough, instituting a nuclear power plant has become a tool for dishonest politics in India and hence no timeline can be presented regarding the establishment of the proposed nuclear power plants in the country. However, this deal offers a moral and diplomatic victory for the country as India is no longer an untouchable’ in the global technology commerce.  

Ajey Lele (Ph. D.) is a New Delhi based Strategic Analyst.