Nuclear Energy and Non-Proliferation
PR Chari, Research Professor, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies
Ambassador Lalit Mansingh, Former Foreign Secretary of India
Professor R. Rajaraman, Emeritus Professor of Physics, JNU
Ambassador KC Singh, Former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs Professor
Nuclear proliferation and nuclear energy are linked issues. The horizontal and vertical growth of nuclear energy affects nuclear proliferation similarly. This was recognized at the beginning of the nuclear age by President Truman and was also reflected in the Baruch plan of 1946, and all these individuals and agreements came to an understanding that there is a need to control access to fissile materials and their means of production. The failure of this ideal stems from the United States unwillingness to take meaningful steps in this direction.
Some of the flagship programs, which highlighted the six decades, were the ‘Atoms for Peace’ in 1953, the Non-Proliferation Treaty was negotiated and came into form in 1970, and as an off shoot, the Nuclear Suppliers Group was formed in 1978.
The current situation indicates a nuclear renaissance on the horizon, with the number of nuclear weapons reducing, however, the number of nuclear actors rising. Two states-Iran and North Korea are in particular flagged, however the role of non-state actors is significantly rising.
The future of nuclear energy is based on the incalculable nature of the costs of fossil fuels due to several factors. A significant factor being that fossil fuels are a depleting asset. However, they are destined to remain relevant, since alternatives are not as effective. The question, then, is why has nuclear energy not grown significantly?
The answer to that is the high cost of nuclear energy, the problem of waste disposal, the long gestation period which is involved in establishing nuclear reactors, and the primordial fear of nuclear radiation. There continues to be angst on the safety and security issues which are involved in the operation of nuclear material, an example being the recent deaths owing to improper disposal of Cobalt 60 in New Delhi.
Another feature for the future of nuclear energy is that of breeder technology. The promise of breeder technology has been questioned from the Indian perspective because it is the centerpiece of the Bhaba three phase plan.
Currently, the Indian Fast Breeder Program revolves around an experimental 15MW fast breeder reactor and a 500MW fast breeder reactor which is designed to come on stream later this year. There is little public information available on the safety record, the production values or the downtime etc, as far as the 15MW reactor is concerned.
There is an upside to Fast Breeder Reactors. It was thought that with the country having 75-80% of the world’s thorium, any ultimate solution to India’s energy security must be premised on utilizing this resource. This was the thinking of Bhaba, based on the situation in the 1950s-1960s.
Fast Breeder Reactors are considered a proliferation risk since they produce more plutonium than they use. Supporters downplay the proliferation risk by arguing that the risk only arises if the plutonium is reprocessed. This argument is not tenable.
Another problem of the Fast Breeder Reactors is the problem of capital costs, which are twenty five percent higher than the pressurized heavy water reactors that are the mainstay of India’s nuclear program. The costs are twice as much than coal based plants. As a result, the electricity generated is costlier and the use of sodium as a coolant makes these plants a safety hazard. Sodium is volatile in the presence of air and water, and therefore has been given up by a number of countries on these grounds.
The International Panel on Fissile Materials had in a report indicated that the commercial operational of these plants would be possible only by 2050. Since Bhaba had planned for these reactors based on the lack of uranium based fuel for India, and since the Indo-US nuclear agreement has taken care of these lacunae, the logic in continuing these fast breeder reactors is questionable.
The Presidency of Barack Obama sees the primary threat to the international system from nuclear weapons and from non-state actors gaining access to nuclear weapons. This is indicated in the flagship events which have occurred during his presidency including a Nuclear Posture Review, a New Start Agreement and a Nuclear Security Summit which continued to highlight this threat.
However, it is seen that American influence is eroding very fast, as was indicated by the Turkish-Brazil-Iran nuclear agreement, its failure to uphold non-proliferation values by differential outlook to North Korea and Iran, and the failure to immediately condemn the Sino-Pakistan nuclear cooperation agreement. This is indicative of a slow decay of the non-proliferation system.
In concluding remarks, the following observations can be made:
a. India’s atomic energy position has not delivered on the atomic energy, despite the patronage given over the years by the political leadership. India’s atomic commission has been fixated on the nuclear weapons program than the nuclear atomic energy program.
b. The Bhaba three phase plan and the breeder technology are questionable, and needs an urgent peer group review in light of the Indo-US nuclear agreement. The peer group should be international in nature.
c. Official estimates of nuclear availability to India are fanciful. Currently only 4000MW are being produced, there was a promise in the Sarabhai plan that 10000MW would be produced in the 1980s, and then it was said that 10000MW would be produced by 2000 and according to the Indian Ambassador to the US 62000MW would be produced by 2032. The Minister of Energy had earlier said that 260000MW of energy would be produced by 2050. This figure needs to be studied
d. Nuclear energy should be a part of the energy mix, since India’s dependency on fossil fuels would not come down substantially. It should also be pointed out that not enough efforts are being made on conservation or to manufacture energy efficient equipment.
e. Murphy’s Law indicates that there more nuclear power plants there are, the greater the proliferation risks.
Therefore the following suggestions need to be adopted:
1. Fuel banks under multilateral control
2. Additional Protocols for nuclear technology recipients
3. Nuclear Weapons States must work actively towards disarmament
4. India should declare a moratorium on testing, and sign the CTBT and FMCT
5. India needs a nuclear posture review since India’s doctrine is over a decade old
6. India should join the Proliferation Security Initiative
7. India should make efforts to join control regimes such as the NSG, the Wassener Group and the Australia Group
Ambassador Lalit Mansingh
The first recommendation made is that India should sign the CTBT, it is my firm belief that we should. It is believed in the strategic community that a decision on the CTBT should not be taken in haste, and that since we have time, we should adopt a position of dominance on the subject to extract concessions from the United States and the international community. This is a wrong approach since it is better to adopt anticipatory diplomacy than to follow a procedure of succumbing to pressure. This is because there would be an inevitable passage of the CTBT in the American Senate in the future, followed by the Chinese, and then the pressure on India and Pakistan would increase. In response to this pressure, domestic opinion would sway towards why we are succumbing to American pressure.
The second issue deals with the FMCT, and here again, we are waiting for the Pakistani side to accede to the treaty. But the fact is, India has enough fissile material for minimal deterrence, and since we have been producing fissile material since 1989, we have enough stockpile of fissile material. Therefore, like in the case of the CTBT, we should declare our interest in signing the FMCT, provided it is transparent and verifiable.
The third issue is regarding how many weapons do we need? I believe we have enough weapons to cover our minimal deterrence requirements. I do not subscribe to the view that this is a flexible concept, and therefore it fails to be a minimum.
There is a need to review our nuclear doctrine, and since much has occurred since the nuclear tests, we need to review our posture. We need a sharper focus on the implications of the doctrine. We also need to discuss the triad and the implications of retaliation.
The proliferation security initiative is a mindset driven policy for India. India’s mindset which emanates from the cold war period believes that whatever is good for the United States is bad for us. However, this mindset needs to change, and India’s participation in the PSI should not be seen in a negative relationship with the United States. We should be proactive in non-proliferation efforts, and there would no loss of prestige for us.
The same logic would play for India becoming a part of export control groups, and it would be a natural flow from the Indo-US nuclear agreement which welcomes India into the nuclear mainstream.
One area of disagreement, with Professor Chari, is on the future of nuclear power in India. The question I have to ask is what alternatives do we have to the breeder technology in India? Non-conventional energy resources are being discussed, but there are no commercially viable energy options which can cater to India’s needs. The nuclear route is unavoidable.
It is important to see Obama’s visit in this light, that his stance on nuclear non-proliferation, is a chance for India to come out more forcefully on global zero and pushing forward our claim to be included into export regimes as a logical outcome of the Indo-US nuclear agreement.
Professor R. Rajaraman
The persistent question of how many weapons is enough, has been debated for a number of years. However, minimal deterrence is not based on the number of weapons you possess, it is dependent upon the successful delivery of weapons, and therefore focus should also be placed on the delivery systems and counter capabilities including anti-ballistic missile shields.
The breeder technology is not as sturdy as conventional reactors, and out of 439 reactors in the world, only 2 reactors are breeder. In Japan, they would not build any more breeders till 2050; they only have one breeder, which is anyway giving them problems.
The breeder reactors are so hot they need to be cooled by liquid metal. In this case sodium, which is extremely corrosive, and therefore these systems are unstable. In breeders, the coolants are broken down, but owing to the high number of safety features which are incorporated into these reactors, there have not been any incidents. A caveat being that the safety features have pushed the costs of the reactors. The super phoenix fast breeder which France was proposing to build was taken off the table since its costs were exceptionally high.
The Indian program calls for reprocessing, which means that the rods produced are taken out for recycled reprocessing, which creates more rods. These plutonium rods can be used in a nuclear weapons program which contributes to the international concerns over these reactors. Therefore breeders are an inherent proliferation risk. For example in Japan, reprocessing has produced 50 tonnes of separated plutonium which they do not know what to do with.
The Bhaba program is a clever program which should not be halted, but continue to operate at the pace at is going, which for better or for worse has not been very fast, and therefore someday its value would be seen. However, in the meantime, there is a need to invest in heavy water reactors and not the breeder technology.
Indian claims to energy production are preposterous with even the more modest claims being much higher than what the present output can produce. Till today we built 4GW in 50 years.
We need to pursue conservation methods and alternative energy resources, including wind and solar energy. The planning commission needs to make a decision on how much money it needs to spend.
Nuclear energy has been revived because of fears of climate change. Carbon emissions have increased exponentially over the years from 1 billion tonnes a year to 7 billion tonnes a year. If we need energy without carbon emissions we would need nuclear energy. As a result there is a renaissance with a renewed interest in building nuclear reactors around the world, including our plans.
The costs are the unknown factor. Jain of NCPIL once said that, energy can be produced at 4 Paise a unit, however there are unknown costs, including that involved in decommissioning a reactor. These costs can be double the costs of building the reactor with waste processing costs. This has not been addressed.
The liability bill will add to the costs and normally while there is insurance for suppliers, the prices of the reactors will be hiked. Our present liability bill puts the onus on the supplier for 60-80 years which is very high and unfeasible. The question of subcontractors has not been addressed. Would subcontractors be liable? Therefore a lot of technical issues need to be raised.
The fears of radiation leak while valid, is highly exaggerated, including from that from a radiological dispersal device. These fears are based more on psychological impact than the actual physical impact of such devices.
Ambassador K.C Singh
There are two aspects to be looked into-one is the global transition and the global debate, and, within it, the Indian transition. The global transition has two reference points, one of which is the helpful and realistic approach adopted by President Bush, and the second being the ideological intervention by President Obama, which is correcting the earlier policies of President Bush. Thirdly, the civil nuclear program which is slipping through is also important.
There were four events which have heightened the global civil nuclear program, the Nuclear Posture Review, the Nuclear Security Summit, the New Start agreement and the NPT Review Conference. The Review conference was a compromise, because the big elephant in the room was not addressed- The fuel cycle and Additional Protocols.
There is no unanimity on either issue, but on the other hand to ensure the debate did not break down and become regressive, and therefore a series of half measures and a complicated measure on the Middle East was adopted.
India sat on the sidelines of the review conference; however we were concerned about a few things. One was that India has been clubbed with Pakistan in the final agreement of the conference, which negates the fact that a year earlier India was a partner of the United States in the civil nuclear deal. This form of discriminatory practice is unacceptable, wherein in multilateral forums India, Pakistan and Israel are clubbed together in a prescriptive remedy of signing the NPT.
On the global debate India is left on the middle ground. This middle ground sees India opening up to global nuclear enterprises, and yet continues to face prescriptive measures, so perhaps some of the gains made with the US are attempted to be rolled back, that is accepting India as a nuclear weapons state.
In this case, de jure is being taken as a step back from de facto, which is taking logic on its head. The debate in the past one year has seen negation of the de facto by asking India to sign the NPT. This is unacceptable to India, to sign as a Non-Nuclear Weapons state, and it is impossible for the United States and others to amend it to accommodate India.
Being in the middle ground, India can only move forward by becoming a part of the larger nuclear regime which has been built vis-à-vis the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Australia group and the Wassener Group and NPCR. The only logical step would be towards making India a member of these groups.
The NPT itself will be overtaken when the FMCT comes in, the proliferation portion will be taken care of, since we would have inspections coming in from that, regardless. India’s participation in the CTBT and FMCT would make the NPT debate irrelevant.
The Sua convention, as amended, does not take into account the Indo-US civil nuclear deal which says that you can stop and search vessels which are carrying nuclear material from any of the signatories to a country not having comprehensive safeguards. India does not have these safeguards; therefore any material being sent to India is subject to inspection. The Indian position is that the Sua convention should recognize the Indo-US nuclear deal, and treat trade with India as legal. This recognition or clarification is much needed.
Furthermore, the realpolitik arising from the situation in the Af-Pak territories has led to India to have to re-engage with Iran. With the possibility of US withdrawal from the region leaving forces in favor of Pakistan and the Taliban, India would find it difficult to stop an Iranian bound ship under present circumstances despite United Nations Security Council Resolutions.
Disagreeing with Ambassador Mansingh on the question of signing the CTBT ahead of others lies the question of the quality of your deterrence. There is a debate among the scientists involved in the nuclear tests about the Indian capabilities, and while the debate may or may not be based on facts, some doubts have been created in the public domain.
We should not rush into the CTBT, since India is at the lower end of the ladder, and we need to deal with the possibility of there being another nuclear test in the region. We are in a dangerous region, and have Machiavellian neighbors working covertly against us in a pincer manner, and for us to surrender our right to future testing at this stage is unwise. The same argument stands for the FMCT, we are a country at the lower end, and we need to hold out for a trade off for benefits of becoming a member of the larger groups mentioned earlier. This is because the signals from the present US administration were not helpful, particularly over the Chinese-Pakistan nuclear agreement.
Additionally, there should be a periodic posture and strategic review to publicly declare how India is moving forward, because there is a history of strategy policies being secretive in India.
- There is no inherent linkage between nuclear energy and proliferation. Non-proliferation is based on political will.
- There is a need to work towards productivity efficiency and this is through technology.
- We have a domestic approach which is sensitive to external pressure. Therefore, we should take a higher level in signing the CTBT and FMCT.
- Are we going to be an opportunistic power or are we going to be a principled power?
- Active discussion on the Civil Nuclear liability bill is misplaced as being catered to the US, since the Russians are also complaining about the bill in its current form.
- There is a need for universalized Additional Protocols.
- There is no unanimity on the concept of multilateral fuel cycles.
- Policy makers should have a number in mind before they declare a minimal credible deterrence policy.
- We do not owe the civil nuclear liability bill to any country but to our own development process. According to a study by FICCI, Indian suppliers too would be hit by the provisions of the deal.
- The term proliferation now also refers to non-state actors, and therefore there is a fear about separated plutonium lying around, of which only 5% is needed for producing a bomb.
- It is reasonable for the Americans to ask India to change its laws, since they underwent a similar process to provide the nuclear agreement to India.
Report by: Siddharth Ramana, Research Officer, IPCS