Of The U.S.-Indian
Nuclear Deal On India's Fissile Production Capacity For Weapons
By Daryl G. Kimball
17 November , 2006
week, the Senate might debate and vote on proposed legislation (S. 3709)
to relax long-standing restrictions on U.S. nuclear trade with India,
which is not a member of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and
does not accept full-scope safeguards as required by current U.S. law
and guidelines established by the major nuclear supplier states.
One of the central issues
about the proposal is how the supply of U.S. and other foreign nuclear
fuel to safeguarded Indian nuclear power reactors would allow India
to use more of its existing domestic supply of uranium to produce fissile
material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for nuclear weapons.
Not only would such indirect
assistance of India's bomb program run counter to U.S. NPT commitments,
it could foster greater nuclear arms competition with Pakistan and China.
Consequently, Sen. Russell
Feingold (D-Wis.) plans to offer an amendment requiring the president
to determine that U.S. nuclear assistance does not in any way facilitate
or encourage an increase in India's nuclear bomb material production
rate. Other Senators may propose amendments conditioning broader U.S.
nuclear trade with India on it joining the five original nuclear-weapon
states in voluntarily halting the production of fissile material for
weapons purposes or negotiating a multilateral, nondiscriminatory production
cutoff agreement with other fissile material producers.
Such approaches are not only
common sense but would be consistent with UN Security Council actions.
Passed unanimously in June 1998 after India's and Pakistan's May nuclear
tests, UN Security Council Resolution 1172 calls upon both countries
to stop the further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.
The resolution also calls on the two countries to immediately stop their
nuclear weapons development programs, refrain from weaponization or
deployment of nuclear weapons, cease development of ballistic missiles
capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and join other nations in a legally-binding
nuclear test ban treaty.
Some proponents of the U.S.-Indian
deal extol India's pledge to support U.S. efforts to negotiate a global
fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) at the 65-nation Conference on
Disarmament (CD) in Geneva. India's commitment to support U.S. efforts
to negotiate an FMCT is a laudable but hollow promise. India has provided
rhetorical support for a global verifiable FMCT in the past, yet it
has done nothing to advance the negotiations nor has it joined the original
nuclear-weapon states in voluntarily halting production. Ongoing differences
between the United States and most other states, including India, on
whether such a treaty should be verified and competing negotiating priorities
at the CD continue to make the prospects for concluding an FMCT difficult
Other proponents of the nuclear
deal have countered by claiming that India has large reserves of uranium
already and that India's nuclear bomb program is not currently constrained
by its domestic uranium stockpile. They assert that U.S. and other foreign
nuclear fuel supplies would not facilitate increased bomb material production
by India and would only help relieve India's shortage of nuclear fuel
for nuclear energy production. Not true.
There is no debate that India
possesses "uranium reserves." But the fact is that India has
been unable to exploit these reserves to the extent that advocates for
the nuclear deal have claimed. As a result, India would be hard pressed
to expand its nuclear energy output and maintain, let alone increase,
the rate of production of fissile material for weapons unless it can
significantly expand domestic uranium mining and milling and/or get
access to the international nuclear fuel market.
India currently produces
about 300 tons of uranium annually, which is almost two-thirds of what
is needed to run its current heavy-water power reactors and support
its production of highly enriched uranium for its nuclear submarine
program and its current weapons-grade plutonium production rate (enough
for approximately six to 10 bombs annually). India has had to rely on
stocks of previously mined and processed uranium to meet the shortfall.
The addition of new reactors in the near future will increase the total
demand for uranium beyond projected increases in domestic uranium production.
Simply put, India's production
of weapons-grade plutonium is currently constrained by the requirements
of its nuclear power reactors on its limited domestic supply of natural
This is why K. Subrahmanyam,
the former head of the National Security Advisory Board, wrote:
"Given India's uranium
ore crunch and the need to build up our minimum credible nuclear deterrent
arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India's advantage to categorise
as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refueled by
imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons-grade
plutonium production." (K. Subrahmanyam, "India and the Nuclear
Deal," Times of India, December 12, 2005.)
This is why an Indian official
"close to the prime minister" told the British Broadcasting
"The truth is we were
desperate. We have nuclear fuel to last only till the end of 2006. If
this agreement had not come through we might have as well closed down
our nuclear reactors and by extension our nuclear program." (Sanjeev
Srivastava, "Indian P.M. Feels Political Heat," British Broadcasting
Corporation, July 26, 2005.)
Impact of Foreign
Nuclear Supplies on India's Bomb Production Capacity
There are several scenarios
that could allow India to utilize foreign nuclear fuel supplies to help
it increase fissile material production for weapons purposes from its
current annual rate of six to 10 bombs worth to several dozen per year.
For instance, if India builds
a new plutonium-production reactor (as it is reportedly planning to
do) or decides to use one or more of the eight existing heavy-water
reactors that would be excluded from International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) safeguards to augment its two existing military plutonium-production
reactors (CIRUS and Dhruva), the additional increased consumption of
domestic uranium supplies for plutonium production would be compensated
for by access to imported uranium for safeguarded power reactors.
India has also kept the Prototype
Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) out of safeguards for the purpose of "maintaining
long term energy security and for maintaining the minimum credible deterrent."
This reactor, to be completed in 2010, could produce up to 130 kilograms
of weapons-grade plutonium each year, which would be a four-fold increase
in India's current output and equivalent to another 25 nuclear weapons
And, if India no longer needs
to rely on domestic uranium to fuel its power reactors, it could also
expand its small-scale centrifuge enrichment program to make highly
enriched uranium to support nuclear weapons production.
Absent a decision by New
Delhi to halt the production of fissile material for weapons purposes,
the proposed U.S.-Indian nuclear trade deal would allow India to continue
and possibly accelerate the buildup of its nuclear weapons material
If India is truly committed
to a "minimum credible deterrent," it should be able to declare
as a matter of national policy that it has stopped fissile material
production for weapons or join the United States, China, France, Pakistan,
Russia, and the United Kingdom in a multilateral, nondiscriminatory
fissile material cutoff agreement pending completion of a global, verifiable
In the very least, the president
should to be able to certify to Congress that U.S. nuclear supplies
to India do nothing to assist or encourage India's nuclear bomb program.
For a detailed technical
analysis on this subject, see Fissile Materials in South Asia: The Implications
of the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal by Zia Mian, A. H. Nayyar, R. Rajaraman,
and M.V. Ramana. This September 2006 research report of the International
Panel on Fissile Materials is online at
For more resources, documents,
statements, and the text and reports of the legislation, see the Arms
Control Association's special resource page on the U.S.-Indian nuclear
deal at http://www.armscontrol.org/projects/india/.
Daryl G. Kimball
is Executive Director, Arms Control Association
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