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Power Failure

The U.S.'s Catastrophic Nuclear Deal with India

International nuclear cooperation agreements tend to be dry, dusty endeavors with few surprises. Not so in the case of the U.S.-India agreement, which was completed last week in Washington. There were dramatic twists and turns as the parties put the finishing touches on the deal. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled other meetings, Vice President Cheney got in on the negotiations, and Indian officials delayed their flights for two more days of discussions. Unfortunately, the concessions made by the United States at the end of the process may damage the Bush administration's broader efforts to rein in nuclear proliferation.

India had been barred from nuclear trade with the United States for almost 30 years, since its test of a nuclear device in 1974 convinced many that peaceful nuclear cooperation could be diverted to weapons purposes. But in 2005, other strategic interests rose to the top of the American agenda. The United States announced that it would pursue a global partnership with India, and, according to U.S. negotiator R. Nicholas Burns, India made nuclear cooperation the central issue.

Now, India has secured a sweetheart deal that not even our closest allies enjoy. In particular, India got assurances that fuel to its reactors would not be cut off for any reason, even for a future nuclear test, a key feature of virtually all other U.S. nuclear agreements. India also got a free pass from the need to subject its nuclear facilities and materials to international inspection, another requirement for all non-nuclear weapon states (which India legally is, despite having nuclear weapons). Furthermore, India got permission, in principle, to reprocess American reactor fuel, joining an elite club with Japan and EURATOM (the European organization that regulates the nuclear fuel supply. Of its members only France and Britain actually reprocess American fuel). Perhaps the greatest surprise, however, was the U.S. agreement, in principle, to transfer sensitive nuclear technology to India that would allow for uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. These are the technologies that can produce either reactor fuel or material for a nuclear bomb. Despite telling Congress repeatedly and categorically that the United States would not share this technology, U.S. negotiators caved at the last minute, breaking America's longstanding policy of not cooperating with other nations in this area.

What does the United States get in return for this largesse? It is unlikely to gain much nuclear trade from India, which has been more interested in Russian and French reactors. But it could gain significantly in other areas--for example, defense sales (including missile defenses) and high tech and science cooperation. The hope is that a better, deeper relationship will give India's foreign policy a more American tilt, perhaps providing a counterweight to China. As for assurances from India, India pledged to build a brand new spent fuel reprocessing plant under international inspections. But this would free up existing plants--those not under inspection--to separate more plutonium for bombs. What's more, International Atomic Energy Agency inspections don't track technology, just material and equipment. A new facility under safeguards won't prevent know-how from migrating over to weapons-related facilities.

In practical terms, this may not matter terribly, since India already has nuclear weapons. But the precedent it sets for others may make U.S. nonproliferation objectives tougher to achieve. For example, in the six party talks with North Korea over dismantling that country's nuclear program, the United States has not looked favorably upon North Korea's demand for future nuclear power reactors And, although the United States views North Korea differently from India, since North Korea pulled out of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) while India never joined it the distinction is likely lost on the North Koreans. Just saying "no" to North Korean demands for reactors may become harder as a result.

Many similarly see hypocrisy in rewarding India, a nuclear weapon state outside the NPT, while punishing Iran, an NPT member state that does not yet have the bomb. While there is no question that Iran must be brought back into compliance with its NPT obligations and must heed U.N. Security Council resolutions, how will it view the United States providing the very technologies to India that it seeks to ban Iran from having? Moreover, President Bush told the world in 2004 that ''enrichment and reprocessing are not necessary for nations seeking to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.'' Yet the nuclear cooperation agreement with India sends the opposite message. Why shouldn't South Korea, for example, seek U.S. approval to reprocess fuel? Adding more states with enrichment and reprocessing capabilities will achieve exactly the opposite of the administration's goals.

A nuclear cooperation agreement is one thing, but giving India the nuclear jewels is another. India's partnership in nonproliferation could be quite useful, but not at the expense of our other partners. Bending the rules this dramatically may make our nonproliferation allies lose confidence in U.S. leadership, as well as in the rules themselves.

By Sharon Squassoni