Nuclear Deal: a Bad Strategic and Energy Bargain

1 June 2007

As negotiations to finalise the United States-India nuclear deal enter what is likely to be their ultimate phase, it is apparent that the Bush administration’s options are limited. It cannot propose a bilateral "123 agreement" on terms that differ significantly from those of the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act, passed last December.

Bluntly put, it is India that will have to "adjust” its expectations and policies to the Hyde Act in respect of the sticking-points that remain: the scope of bilateral nuclear “cooperation”; guarantees of uninterrupted supply of fuel and spares; India’s “right” to reprocess imported fuel; and the consequences of another nuclear weapons test by India.

As Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association (which opposes the deal), puts it: “[E]ven if the Bush administration wanted to, the U.S. negotiators simply do not have the leeway to concede much more to India.”

This puts Manmohan Singh in a bind. Singh made solemn commitments to Parliament that there would be no departure from the original July 2005 agreement, which says the U.S. accepts that “as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology, India should acquire the same benefits and advantages as other such states… [such as the U.S].”

Since then, Indian hardliner lobbies, especially Department of Atomic Energy officials, have raised the bar by underlining the centrality of the “right” to reprocess fuel because India’s long-term nuclear programme hinges on reprocessed plutonium, to be used in fast-breeder reactors.

This “right” is unlikely to be conceded—unless there is a dramatic shift in the US stand. Nor does the Bush administration have the will or political capital to demand of Congress that the US should continue nuclear cooperation even if India conducts another nuclear blast.

A “123 agreement” that substantially differs from commitments made to Parliament is bound to invite the charge that the government has compromised India's sovereignty.

However, even more important than this procedural case against the deal is a substantive argument that critiques its strategic consequences and energy implications.

It essence, the deal is about admitting India to the Global Nuclear Club, led by its most powerful and weapons-addicted member, the US—as part of an emerging unequal US-India “strategic partnership”. It will legitimise India's nuclear weapons although India is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In return, India will also sanctify the US’s nuclear weapons.

India will thus jettison the cause of global nuclear disarmament which it has championed for 60 years, and to which the UPA promised to return. This will set a negative example and further weaken the case for restraint on the part of the non-nuclear states.

Contrary to propaganda, the deal won’t promote restraint on India’s part. India’s military-nuclear capacity will increase. By importing uranium for its civilian programme, India can dedicate domestic uranium exclusively to weapons.

India’s nuclear weapons pursuit, with US approval, will provide ammunition to countries like Iran and North Korea, and could provoke a rethink in states that renounced nuclear weapons, like Germany, Japan, Sweden, Brazil and South Africa. The deal will create resentment in Pakistan—at a time when the India-Pakistan dialogue is delicately poised. It could also intensify an arms race not just with Pakistan, but with China.

As deplorable as the deal’s strategic implications is its promotion of nuclear power as the precondition for India's rapid economic growth. The assumption is that nuclear power is an abundant, safe, environmental benign and economically competitive energy source, which is rapidly growing the world over, and emerging as a solution to the problem of global warming.

This assumption is comprehensively wrong. It’s mired in naïve, techno-romantic thinking of the early 1950s. Despite huge subsidies, nuclear power has betrayed its early promise and turned out to be ruinously expensive, difficult to manage, unacceptably unsafe, accident-prone, and environmentally unsound.

Currently, the unit costs of nuclear power are 40 to 70 percent higher than those of coal- and oil-fired electricity plants. The history of nuclear power is a story, according to energy consultant Amory Lovins, of the greatest failure in the world’s industrial history. It’s also a story of euphoric projections and missed targets. Thus, had the nuclear industry’s quarter century-old projections materialised, the globe would have had 10 times more nuclear power than it does. India is a prime example. We’re still well under half of the target (10,000 MW) set for 1980!

Nuclear power contributes just 16 percent to global electricity generation—and an even more modest 6 percent to its energy production. This contribution will shrink rapidly in the future. In place of the 114 reactors (of a world total of 435) that will be retired within a decade, only 29 new ones are under construction, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, an international body mandated to promote nuclear power.

Even the conservative pro-nuclear Economist magazine concedes that most reactors in the rich countries, which account for two-thirds of the world total, will close down. Major countries like Germany, Britain, Italy, Sweden and Belgium are phasing out nuclear power. Even France, which draws 79 percent of its power from the atom, has shut down 11 reactors and has plans for only one new reactor.

There’s no global nuclear reconnaissance, as romantically predicted. Only a few Asian countries, including China, South Korea, Indonesia and India, have plans for major nuclear expansion.

Nuclear power bristles with safety and environmental problems. Radiation is the most ubiquitous. Each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle releases ionising radiation, an invisible, intangible, silent poison, which damages DNA and causes cancer or genetic disorders. Radiation can’t be eliminated; only relocated. Radiation is harmful in all doses—in routine emissions, as well as big releases.

Nuclear power is highly accident-prone. It involves complex, interlocked systems operating at relatively high temperatures and pressures. Chernobyl (1986), which has claimed 95,000 lives, remains the world’s worst-ever accident. But all reactor types can undergo a catastrophic accident with a similar core meltdown. No amount of extraneous or marginal “protection”, like containment domes, can remedy structural flaws in existing reactor designs. The probability of a Chernobyl is admittedly low, but its consequences are totally unacceptable.

Radioactive wastes are nuclear power’s worst legacy. All nuclear activity produces wastes; some remain dangerously active for thousands of years. Thus, plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,400 years. And uranium-235’s half-life is 710 million years!

Science knows of no container which can even safely store such wastes for so long. No geological formations are stable for that period. Building nuclear plants is like constructing homes without toilets, only more dangerous.

India’s nuclear programme has been a spectacular failure, marked by huge cost overruns, gigantic subsidies running annually into thousands of crores, missed targets, and unsafe practices. DAE targets have never been met. Had its 1970 plans materialised, India would have had over 50,000 MW by now—15 times more than actual achievement.

By contrast, renewable energy sources have performed impressively in India. Wind power capacity has already notched up 6,300 MW, compared to nuclear’s 3,400 MW—without heavy subsidies. India’s wind potential is 60,000 MW-plus. Other renewables too are becoming competitive. But indigenous uranium can’t even sustain 8,000 MW of nuclear power.

Contrary to the claim that nuclear power is necessary for energy security, self-reliance and prosperity, it contributes less than 3 percent to India’s power generation. Even if the Atomic Energy Department’s always-overambitious targets are achieved, its contribution will only increase to 6 percent by 2050. That’s still marginal.

Fast-breeders, on which the DAE’s romantic long-term plans are based, have proved a failure everywhere—most notably in France which invested heavily in them, and in India too.

Nuclear power is clearly NOT the way forward for India. Nor is the deal with the US.

About the authors

Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a political columnist, social science researcher, and activist on issues of human rights, the environment, global justice and peace. He currently holds the Durgabai Deshmukh Chair in Social Development, Equity and Human Security at the Council for Social Development, Delhi, affiliated to the Indian Council for Social Science Research. 

A former Senior Editor of The Times of India, Bidwai is one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists, whose articles appear in more than 25 newspapers and magazines. He is also frequently published by The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and Il Manifesto.

Bidwai is a founder-member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). He received the Sean MacBride International Peace Prize, 2000 of the International Peace Bureau, Geneva & London. 

He was a Senior Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Bidwai is the co-author, with Achin Vanaik, of South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, a radical critique of the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan and of reliance on nuclear weapons for security.  

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