Politics & Policy

Unconditionally Bad

The Indian nuclear deal trades away our credibility on North Korea and Iran.

In a desperate attempt to get Congress to approve the U.S.-India nuclear deal free of any modifications, the State Department and the deal’s backers have been forced to defy the laws of physics, known geology, and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Their latest claim, made just before Congress prepares to mark up legislation to implement the deal this week, is that U.S. exports of uranium will not help India make more bombs in any way. This is a knee slapper.

India currently produces 300 tons of uranium annually–just enough to run its current fleet of heavy-water power reactors. The additional 150 tons it needs annually to fuel its military facilities is being drawn from a pre-existing stockpile that’s due to peter out in the next 12 months. That’s why India’s own nuclear hawks (and recently a former top Indian intelligence official) are so supportive of the nuclear deal. As they have observed, if India gets access to foreign uranium (as the U.S. nuclear deal provides), it will not only allow India to expand its civilian power program, but will also free up most of India’s domestic uranium to build more bombs. Pakistan has already responded by announcing plans to ramp up its military nuclear production.

Why are the deal’s backers so intent on denying this? Simple: They have to. Otherwise, the deal would be seen as violating the NPT’s central provision, laid out in Article I, which prohibits states like the U.S. from in any way (“directly or indirectly”) assisting the nuclear-weapons efforts of countries, such as India, that did not have nuclear weapons prior to the treaty’s completion. The deal’s backers sold the agreement on the grounds that it will be a clear net plus for nuclear nonproliferation. This is difficult to maintain if the deal violates the NPT’s central prohibition.

How do they, then, go about denying this? They contend that India has such a large reserve of uranium–over 78,000 tons–that it already has all it needs to run its civilian nuclear program and to make thousands more nuclear weapons without any foreign uranium imports. This sounds persuasive until you realize that the uranium reserves they are talking about are not in some neat pile above ground and ready for use, but locked instead in very low concentrations well beneath the earth’s surface in strata that have yet to be mined and milled to produce usable yellowcake.

Indian uranium is notorious for its poor quality. India has had great difficulty in expanding its uranium production beyond its miserly 300 tons mined and milled per year, largely because its uranium mines are so uneconomical and their possible expansion has drawn fierce environmental protests. It costs India approximately five times as much to mine and mill its domestic ore as it does simply to buy uranium on the international spot market. 

What’s blocking India from importing foreign ore? The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), of which the U.S. is a member. This control cartel prohibits nuclear suppliers from selling uranium to any nation that did not have nuclear weapons prior to 1967 unless it opens all of its nuclear facilities to international inspections–something India refuses to do. That’s why India is so keen on the U.S.-India nuclear deal: It obligates the U.S. to get the NSG to make an exception for India to allow it access to foreign uranium and other controlled nuclear goods.

This isn’t a point the deal’s backers dwell much on. They hope their audience will buy their pitch, which conflates potential Indian uranium reserves–which they emphasize–with India’s actual meager uranium production–which they are loath to specify. When pressed, they do concede that India may be facing a “current shortage” of uranium but claim that this shortage is merely a “transient” production “bottle neck.”  Perhaps, but the Indians can’t wait to get at foreign uranium fuel: They know that Indian production can hardly increase anywhere as fast as they need it to.

What’s the rush? India’s dwindling stockpile of surplus yellowcake is one explanation. Yet another is India’s desire to upgrade its civilian reactor fleet and modernize its nuclear weapons–both of which will require using much more enriched uranium. Specifically, India plans to acquire more reliable, powerful and modern light-water reactors that use lightly enriched uranium. (So far, India has relied almost exclusively on less efficient, natural-uranium-fueled, heavy-water reactors.) India also wants to perfect more powerful, smaller, and readily missile-deliverable warheads that use both plutonium and highly enriched uranium to supplement India’s current generation of  plutonium-only bombs.

Relying on enriched-uranium fuels for civilian and military purposes, though, will dramatically drive up Indian demand for uranium and uranium-enrichment capacity. The only way this higher demand can be met is by immediately importing lightly enriched foreign fuel to run all of India’s light-water reactors. India has two U.S. light-water reactors operating, two modern Russian light-water reactors soon coming online, and is planning on buying at least another six before 2020. It takes 800 tons of natural uranium just to start one light-water reactor (i.e., nearly as much uranium as India’s total production for three full years). Multiply this figure several fold and you get the picture: Without foreign nuclear fuel, India’s nuclear-weapons modernization will be reduced to an unhurried slog.

The urgency to secure foreign uranium for India’s power and military programs is compounded by India’s low uranium-enrichment capacity. All of India’s current enrichment facilities are dedicated to supplying India’s military. If any of this limited capacity had to be diverted to enriching uranium to make fuel for India’s light-water power reactors, it would deprive India’s military of the highly enriched uranium it is counting on to make smaller, more powerful warheads for India’s advanced missiles, including the Agni III–a system that’s now ready to be tested. Again, the only way out of this dilemma is to import foreign fuel, fuel that can only be had if the U.S.-India nuclear deal is implemented.

These facts are hard to dismiss. The contention that the deal violates the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is hardly, as some of the deal’s more ardent backers contend, some “petty canard.”  It’s a real problem–one which, as the U.S. and its allies plead their case against Iran and North Korea, is only likely to become more and more of a headache.

This week, Congress will mark up legislation to implement the deal. Some congressmen will suggest that the U.S. get India to stop making fissile material for military purposes.  Russia, the U.S., France, and the U.K. have already publicly announced that they’ve stopped such production and its rumored China has privately told U.S. officials it has as well.  Other congressmen will recommend the U.S. require that India not use any more of its domestic uranium for military purposes than it did before the deal was struck.

It’s unclear which if any of these ideas will prevail. If the deal is not conditioned by something like them, though, this much is certain: The U.S. will be joining the ranks of North Korea and Iran as NPT violators. The timing here couldn’t be worse.

 – Henry Sokolski is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, DC, and is editor of Taming the Next Set of Strategic Weapons Threats.

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