Thursday, September 18, 2008

What's the deal with our "Nuclear Deal"?

Mr. L.K. Advani looks perennially irritated. I have no idea how to please the man. For a guy who followed the genial Vajpayee, this guy always has a bee in his bonnet. He was exactly the same when he recently attacked the UPA government for allegedly betraying the nation with the "nuclear deal". He alleges that our PM. Mr. Manmohan Singh misled the nation and the Left goes far enough to say we are getting into some kind of slavery arrangement with the USA. What nonsense!

Thankfully the UPA government called the bluff of its "allies" and a major change of government was averted. Mayawati showed her glee at a backdoor opportunity to become PM, and there was enough drama in New Delhi, before the air went out of the balloon. But the trumpeting of the old war horse Advani has not slowed down. He continues to bash Mr. Singh for being "pro-American".

I wonder how pro American we are when we welcome Dell and Microsoft and a host of other software companies to set up shop in India. See, we love prosperity and we don't really care about where the money rolls in from. We do not refuse money! The only time we put national pride ahead of our agenda is when money is not part of the equation.

The same with other countries. Nobody has a real interest in India becoming a huge nuclear power producer any more than they want to make money by selling us fuel, technology and a host of other services. By letting India into the club, the club just got richer. That is all there is to it.

There is always an aura surrounding anything "nuclear". Fission, fusion, fissile material, treaties, proliferation, regulations, safeguards - it can all be a bit of intimidating noise for some of us. I for one, have always been a big fan of nuclear power generation and I think we are years behind in embracing this reality - nuclear power is the only reliable option going forward.

Since I am known to speak out rather vociferously on this front, I invite all sorts of reactions, from bewilderment to flat out argument, ranging from the bizarre to the most articulate, averaging somewhere in the unclear. So for all the people who want this matter elucidated in simple English, here is the "deal":

India needs electrical power. For various reasons we cannot afford to build more hydro-electric or thermal power plants, and we are not sure about solar and wind options. So, the only option for virtually limitless expansion in power production is nuclear. We need to build nuclear reactors. In order to build nuclear reactors, we need nuclear fuel, like uranium for instance. We don't have enough of it, so we have to buy it. The Nuclear Suppliers Group is much like the OPEC - The members of the OPEC supply oil, the members of the NSG supply nuclear fuel, knowhow, and technologies needed for peaceful exploitation of nuclear science, most critically for building nuclear reactors. We have built our own nuclear reactors, but we'd like to build better ones, perhaps more modern, but the ability to buy fuel freely is critical to us.

Unlike oil, which the OPEC countries sell to anyone, in order to be able to trade with the NSG, we needed to get clearances and permissions and lay to rest all concerns about us being able to to use this nuclear material and know how in a responsible manner. In other words, the NSG does not want to feel guilty about giving us uranium today and see us build nuclear weapons tomorrow and start selling them. India is not a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (the NPT and the CTBT). So we needed a waiver from them, basically allaying fears that a non signatory to these treaties can also actually behave rather responsibly.

The reason we didn't sign any of these treaties - We have for a long time believed that we would like to see a real time frame for dismantling huge armouries of nuclear weapons that countries like the USA and Russia have, and that there is simply no justice in entering into these treaties without a framework for a world with fewer nuclear weapons. A stand that is very principled, and uncompromising.

No amount of arm twisting by any other country has forced us to sign these and for the foreseeable future, we will not sign any of these treaties. Now, after the last nuclear bombs we tested in Pokharan, which of course forced Pakistan to get a bomb from China to explode on Pakistani soil just to prove they are no worse than their neighbours, sanctions were imposed on India which didn't exactly make us starve and sanctions were imposed on Pakistan which didn't exactly make them starve. Later, India unilaterally declared a moratorium on testing. This we did, after we weaponized and got enough data for building more weapons if and when needed.

After a solid record of not leaking nuclear technology, material or weapons to any other country, India generally has a good name with everyone in the world. Also, being who we are economically, no country in the world would like to needlessly piss us off for any reason. Our cousins across the border aren't so well received, after their rather shady record in these areas.

So, now we asked for being specially waived of the requirement of being an NPT and a CTBT signatory in order to be allowed entry into the NSG so that we can trade in nuclear materials, mainly the fuel, which we badly need for our nuclear power ambitions. To put things in perspective, France's electrical production is over 80% nuclear, while India's is less than 5%. Nuclear power production is a very prudent and necessary long term investment. So, we are going into a future where we will have abundance of electrical power, and not have to depend on thermal power projects, which pollute, and hydro electrical projects which are expensive and not so reliable with the dependence on our monsoons.

In order to secure this future, we needed this "waiver" so that we can trade openly and transparently, like a genuine member of the world's nuclear club and not like some shady fly by night operator. The biggest concern we had was that our strategic (military) programme could be hurt by signing this deal. So, we made it clear right at the beginning of negotiations that these were two separate programs and we will not have one interfering with the other. The USA, believe it or not, was the country that slapped sanctions on us soon after the Pokhran test, but in this case, has been our supporter for obtaining this waiver.

Read nothing more into this than business sense. America has not built a nuclear reactor for over thirty years and Somalia is unlikely to build one anytime soon. China is happy to burn Australian coal to generate all the thermal power they want, and pollute all the way to the high heavens. So, India is the only new customer available for sale of nuclear fuel to! So, by supporting this waiver, American companies can in theory open up a new revenue stream for their sagging business. That's all there is to it, and so Bush loves us for the time being.

Manmohan Singh's government made an excellent case for being granted this "waiver" and with timely pressure from Bush and the USA, we have got this waiver, with absolutely no strings attached! This is a brilliant coup! So good that the BJP and the Left had no choice but to attack it, while making no attempt to even mention once what exactly it is that they are opposed to! Go ahead, read up all the old newspapers and the articles in every magazine. They are nothing but hot air, with not ONE specific opposition to the details of the deal. Misleading India, my foot, Advani and the Left are trying to hoodwink us!

Now let's address these "concerns" we should be aware of. The biggest concern of course would be losing any sovereign rights - we have kept all of them. We can test another nuclear weapon anytime we want. Of course each country will have the freedom to react in any way it chooses to. But, if we have plenty of room to explain why we needed to conduct the test and so on. In other words, there are no iron clad conditions that will cripple our nuclear investments.

The second biggest concern would of course be whether we will be subject to any kind of monitoring by international agencies - yes, our new facilities will be for various reasons like safety and accounting of where the fuel is being used and how much of it etc., but the military programme is strictly off limits to these agencies. Nobody has a problem with this.

Then the issue of the letter Bush wrote to the American congress, which was apparently leaked - why we should be concerned about America's internal communications AFTER we secured the waiver we sought is beyond me, but the BJP sees a conspiracy somewhere. There are FORTY FIVE countries to buy nuclear fuel from. France and Russia were waiting in the wings to give this to us, and we have 10 nuclear reactors coming up, without an atom coming from the USA as of yet. So, why the heck we should even bother about what Bush writes to his Congress should be beyond any sensible person. Let the US congress takes its time and go through due process.

Each country will have its own checks and balances while selling us the fuel or technology we need. But with the waiver from the big treaties, we have crossed the biggest of hurdles. The rest is all business. People want to sell to India. We are going to be buying big time, whether it is high technology items, or defence hardware. Everybody in the world knows it. That's all there is to it - business. This "nuclear deal" is one of the many we will be signing in the years to come when we integrate our position in the world, and be an important player in some of the new equations that will invariably get established. This is hardly the time to play lousy local politics but that man with the perennial grouse is upto it. He depends on your ignorance. Bless him. Ignore him.

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