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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Nuclear Deal: NPA Flawed Assumptions

Non-proliferation Ayatollahs usually make two key charges against US-India nuclear deal: the deal will enable India to divert it's own scare Uranium deposits towards weapons production and that the deal will enable India to build a large nuclear arsenal. These two arguments are used to beat up on the nuclear deal from the U.S. side. (Opponents from Indian side present different set of arguments.)

Almost an year ago, Ashley Tellis, an analyst who espouses close US-India relations, showed that both the charges raised by NPAs are flawed. In his June 2006 report, Atoms for War? U.S.-Indian Civilian Nuclear Cooperation and India's Nuclear Arsenal, for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ashley estimates the Uranium deposits currently available to India to make the follow conclusions:

  • India is currently separating far less weapons grade plutonium annually than it has the capability to produce. The evidence, which suggests that the Government of India is in no hurry to build the biggest nuclear stockpile it could construct based on material factors alone, undermines the assumption that India wishes to build the biggest nuclear arsenal it possibly can;
  • Further, India's capacity to produce a huge nuclear arsenal is not affected by prospective U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation. The research in this report concludes that: India already has the indigenous reserves of natural uranium necessary to undergird the largest possible nuclear arsenal it may desire and, consequently, the U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation initiative will not materially contribute towards New Delhi's strategic capacities in any consequential way either directly or by freeing up its internal resources; that the current shortage of natural uranium in India caused by constrictions in its mining and milling capacity is a transient problem that is in the process of being redressed. The U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement proposed by President Bush does not in any way affect the Government of India's ability to upgrade its uranium mines and milling facilities—as it is currently doing. As such, the short-term shortage does not offer a viable basis either for Congress to extort any concessions from India in regards to its weapons program or for supporting the petty canard that imported natural uranium will lead to a substantial increase in the size of India's nuclear weapons program;
  • Further, India’s capacity to produce a huge nuclear arsenal is not affected by prospective U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation. A few facts underscore this conclusion clearly. India is widely acknowledged to possess reserves of 78,000 metric tons of uranium (MTU). The forthcoming Carnegie study concludes that the total inventory of natural uranium required to sustain all the reactors associated with the current power program (both those operational and those under construction) and the weapons program over the entire notional lifetime of these plants runs into some 14,640-14,790 MTU—or, in other words, requirements that are well within even the most conservative valuations of India’s reasonably assured uranium reserves. If the eight reactors that India has retained outside of safeguards were to allocate 1/4 of their cores for the production of weapons-grade materials—the most realistic possibility for the technical reasons discussed at length in the forthcoming report—the total amount of natural uranium required to run these facilities for the remaining duration of their notional lives would be somewhere between 19,965-29,124 MTU. If this total is added to the entire natural uranium fuel load required to run India’s two research reactors dedicated to the production of weapons-grade plutonium over their entire life cycle—some 938-1088 MTU—the total amount of natural uranium required by India’s dedicated weapons reactors and all its unsafeguarded PHWRs does not exceed 20,903-30,212 MTU over the remaining lifetime of these facilities. Operating India’s eight unsafeguarded PHWRs in this way would bequeath New Delhi with some 12,135-13,370 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, which is sufficient to produce between 2,023-2,228 nuclear weapons over and above those already existing in the Indian arsenal.

The point about constrictions on mining and milling capacity is important. India will never allow any other nation, especially US Congress, to dictate how much it can import and how it can use the existing Uranium deposits. Bush's team, lead by Nick Burns, understands this. So the only major sticking point during the recent negotiations has not been about how the Uranium is used but has been with regards to what to do if India performs another weapon's test, apparently in response to Chinese test. While I am not sure why we need to test if the Chinese do - we should test because there is need for it based on our own requirements - it obviously is helpful if India's actions and US and Nuclear Supplier Group's actions are spelled out before hand if such a scenario unfolds.