Thursday, March 09, 2006

The nuclear plan’s hurdle race

At last one can heave a sigh of relief of sorts. Even though a lot remains to be done to give practical effect to the July 18 India-US statement on nuclear cooperation, the “successful completion of discussions on India’s separation plan” as stated in the joint statement, and the tabling of India’s separation plan by the PM in Parliament on March 7, means that the subsequent phases of that exercise can now begin in earnest.

This means that, one, the PM and his team have been able to craft a separation plan in line with the statement made in Parliament last week and which is also acceptable to the US, and hopefully to the other members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Two, the US administration can now move ahead in submitting a proposal to the Congress to remove US restrictions on civil nuclear commerce with India. This is not likely to be an easy affair. The political leadership in both countries is likely to face opposition to the separation plan. The separation will most certainly be criticised in the US by the non-proliferation fundamentalists as being incomplete. In India, it is likely to be criticised as being too inclusive. No matter. The US president will most likely be able to convince the Congress about the plan, just as the PM will be able to convince the Indian public about its merits.

Third, the US — with some assistance from India — has to convince the NSG members to amend its guidelines for nuclear transfers to accommodate India. This too is not likely to present any difficulty once the US administration presents a viable legislative plan of action to the Congress for approval of amendments to US laws. Once it becomes apparent that the US Congress approval is on the way, the NSG too can begin the process of amending its guidelines in time for its next plenary session in May/June. Finally, and concurrently, India and the IAEA have to begin negotiations for an IAEA-India safeguards agreement and an additional protocol. This is likely to take some time since this initiative will be one of a kind.

Even though on paper further progress of the nuclear agreement looks straightforward, there are a number of landmines along the way. The first is the specific schedule of separation of civil and military facilities that will be carried out by India. According to the PM’s Parliament statement, eight of the 22 reactors that will be functional at the end of the current construction phase will be kept out of safeguards, leaving 14 reactors to be safeguarded. Apart from the issue of fast breeder reactors (FBR) — which have been left out of safeguards — the number of unsafeguarded reactors is likely to have its impact on the reaction of the US Congress.

The FBRs can be managed. What is more likely to affect the US Congress deliberations will be the manner in which safeguarded reactors are scheduled to be brought under safeguards. If the plan involves backloading safeguards — ie, the bulk of the safeguarded reactors will be from the plants currently under construction, which means only four of the currently operating 11 unsafeguarded reactors are to be immediately offered for safeguards — it would be an uphill task. If, however, a minimum of six of these 11 reactors are offered for safeguards, the chances of the agreement going through the US Congress will improve substantially.

The second hurdle lies in getting the separation plan accepted by all members of the NSG. The NSG operates on the consensus principle. It has 45 members and some of them — Australia, Brazil, South Africa, the Scandinavian countries to name a few — had expressed strong reservations on the issue. China, which became a member of NSG only last year, is reported to have made a statement after the India-US joint statement that non-NPT signatories (like India) should sign the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state, meaning thereby that India should place all of its reactors under safeguards. How China will play the Pakistan card at the NSG is anybody’s guess.

The last hurdle will be the India-specific safeguards agreement that has to be negotiated with the IAEA. That agreement will have to be approved by the IAEA board of governors. How the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) in the board will react to India being granted the privilege of special safeguards will determine the success or failure of the nuclear deal.

This is not to say that these hurdles cannot be overcome. But it will require both India and the US to work closely along with other major supporters of the deal — France, Russia and the UK — in convincing other members of the NSG and IAEA about the merits of the nuclear deal.


No comments: