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Indo-US Nuclear Deal

An Indian View
by Chintan Patel

Last July when the Manmohan Singh government shook hands with the Bush administration signaling an end to India’s nuclear isolation the deal was touted as a landmark event in Indo-US relations.

While there has been considerable discussion and debate analyzingthe deal in the United States, it is rather disappointing to note that debate over the implications of this deal has been practically non-existent within India. Most Indian supporters of this agreement including government officials have given one of three arguments to support their stand : this deal will give India a source of much needed energy, this deal will validate India's new position in world order based on its recent economic growth, and this deal will symbolize strengthened Indo-US bilateral relations. However, each of these points can be legitimately challenged on multiple grounds.

From India’s energy needs perspective, the proposed nuclear agreement has significant shortcomings. Currently, nuclear energy accounts for roughly 3% of India’s total energy needs. Even if this deal goes through and new nuclear power plants are constructed, this statistic is not expected to change significantly. Thus, notions of independence from oil and other conventional sources of energy, resulting from this deal are unrealistically optimistic. Furthermore, the very rationale of using nuclear energy needs to be challenged. While there is no denying that India (and any country for that matter) needs to diversify its energy portfolio, there needs to be a thorough evaluation of each available alternative source of energy to assess its costs and benefits, both short-term and long-term. Conducting such a cost-benefit analysis for nuclear energy reveals that there are several factors that make it unattractive in the Indian context. Firstly, the security hazard that nuclear energy poses is enormous, and given India’s high population density, the damage that could be caused by a potential accident or negligence could be devastating. With the onus of operational safety on the Indian power plant operators a useful metric to assess the safety hazard posed by nuclear plants in India would include data on existing nuclear plants to see how they have fared so far. But unfortunately due to extreme opaqueness with which nuclear plants are run in the country, this information is not available for public analysis. This must be a point of debate going forward given the stated civilian use of these plants.

Safety concerns aside, another negative implication of this deal on India would be dependence on foreign sources of raw material for the new nuclear reactors. It is a well-known fact that India has large deposits of Thorium, but relatively scarce deposits of Uranium and Plutonium. As a result, the Atomic Energy Dept of India has been long trying to build a nuclear reactor that uses Thorium instead of Uranium and Plutonium. Now, with this new agreement, India would be building new nuclear reactors that run on Uranium/Plutonium, which India will need to procure largely from the international market. It is not unreasonable to envision a scenario where this dependence would ultimately put India in a vulnerable position and jeopardize her foreign relations and policy. Another important fact to keep in mind while addressing India's energy concerns is that decentralized sources of energy are more effective in India than centralized sources of energy like nuclear plants because the transmission and distribution systems are highly lossy and inefficient. Therefore, several energy experts believe that Indian energy needs would be much better served by promoting localized sources of energy generation like solar-energy, wind energy, farm waste, etc to minimize transmission distances. It should be noted that currently wind energy already accounts for roughly twice the amount of energy generated by nuclear power plants.

It should be noted that the points made above are not implying that the authors feel that nuclear energy has no merits. However, we believe it has enough drawbacks from a purely energy standpoint to merit a thorough discussion and analysis of this issue. One hopes that the decision taken by the Indian government has taken into consideration the points made above, but the only way to elicit that information is through public discourse of this topic, since the government has not been forthcoming in providing a detailed rationale behind the agreement.

Setting aside the energy argument of this deal, we would like to question the attitude held by many that this deal announces India's "arrival" into an elite "club" of nations. India's recent economic growth has undoubtedly increased the attention she gets from the world, and the United States, and it would be politically and diplomatically naive to waste this position of ascendancy. But we strongly feel that the government should use this clout for issues that truly help the people of India. For example, the government could have flexed their new found muscle at WTO trade talks to achieve a meaningful deal for Indian and other Third World farmers; an issue that has direct impact to the people of India. Instead, this government has chosen to spend this diplomatic capital to negotiate a deal which at the superficial level seems like one where the United States has had to make concessions to accommodate Indian demands. Even from a foreign policy standpoint, we question the approach of seemingly taking favors from United States for something that does not really have immediate or significant advantages for the people of India.

Lastly, the most regrettable aspect of this agreement has been the primacy it has achieved within the context of Indo-US relations. It is a mistake to earmark this deal, one which is hardly universally accepted in both countries, and one which is not going to translate into tangible benefits for the peoples of both nations, as the platform for bilateral ties between these two great democracies. While we laud the sentiment of Indo-US co-operation and we work actively to facilitate the same, we also believe that a truly meaningful and positive engagement between the two countries should be based on mutual benefits and goodwill between their peoples. The unprecedented frenzy with which certain groups and officials have supported and advocated this deal and given it the artificial relevance it has attained, has indeed been very surprising and unfathomable. Instead of this narrow focus on nuclear energy, we would like the two countries to collaborate on a broader platform, which includes other aspects like developing alternative fuel sources, implementing zero-emission coal plants, improving end-user efficiency by allowing exchange of power-efficient devices, etc - a platform of which nuclear energy is a component, not the single component.

Looking ahead, even if this deal goes through and results in new nuclear plants being built in India, it is imperative that the government takes some responsible measures. Firstly, the functioning of these plants has to be made more transparent to the public. The Indian nuclear establishment has been historically exempt from transparency in its operations in the name of national security, but now that the civilian and the military components of nuclear technology are going to be divorced, the argument of compromising national security will no longer hold true. The government must also adopt a fair policy in choosing sites for building these new plants, and periodically assess the impact of these plants on human population and the natural environment close to these sites. These measures are absolutely essential to learn the additional cost of nuclear energy borne by the people and communities who live in the vicinity of nuclear sites. In the past, the Indian government/ Dept of Atomic Energy has kept the content of reports documenting the impact of existing nuclear plants secret. The renewed focus on nuclear energy should be utilized to rectify these mistakes of the past.

To re-iterate a sentiment already mentioned earlier, the purpose of this article is not to blindly criticize nuclear energy or the Indo-US nuclear deal. Instead, this is an attempt to urge policymakers and the public to objectively evaluate the Indo-US nuclear deal thoroughly and hopefully spur a debate that is largely absent on an extremely important issue.

Chintan Patel

Board Member, Young India, Inc


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