The recently reported decision of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) on additional restrictions for transfer of ENR (enrichment and reprocessing) technologies with adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) being a condition for transfer has caused huge unease in India. It negates the positive and forward-looking orientation with respect to ENR issues that was built into bilateral and multilateral agreements developed as a part of development of our international civil nuclear cooperation. The NSG waiver for India now seems to have been circumscribed. While this does not affect the commerce related to nuclear reactors and their fuel supplies and our rights to reprocess and recycle used fuel, it appears to shut doors on commerce related to enrichment and reprocessing technologies. The United States, Russia, and France have issued statements reiterating their adherence to understandings with India. One would only hope that this does not amount to doublespeak and the NSG waiver in respect of the NPT condition that was granted to India earlier remains undiluted in respect of ENR transfers as well. The statements of these countries are far from being explicit in this respect.
India is a responsible country with advanced nuclear technologies. Indian capability is comprehensive and covers the entire nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment and reprocessing. Understandings embedded in our international civil nuclear cooperation arrangements are premised on sustained access to international commerce for facilities that we place under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. At some stage, we would set up reprocessing plants to reprocess used fuel arising from reactors under IAEA safeguards. Similarly, we could set up enrichment plants for enriching imported uranium under IAEA safeguards to feed our growing programme. Such plants, if they have to be under IAEA safeguards, must have the benefits of international commerce and not denied that access. That we have our own technological capability in respect of these technologies cannot be an argument to allow others to reverse the positive and forward-looking sentiment built into our understandings.
Reprocessing and recycle (particularly in fast reactors) of used fuel from nuclear reactors enables extraction of several tenfolds larger carbon-dioxide-free energy from a given amount of uranium. Reprocessing is thus the key to nuclear energy, addressing the twin challenge of sustainable global energy supply as well as mitigating the threat of climate change. Claims made about the capability of available uranium to meet global energy needs, in once-through mode, for a long enough time are true only in the context of the current rate of consumption, which is primarily in rich countries with more or less stabilised energy supply needs. They are not true in the context of the rapidly growing energy needs of countries in the developing world. A closed fuel cycle involving reprocessing is thus a key necessity. Concerns on ENR technologies arise because they handle large quantities of weapon usable material in loose form. To meet the needs of the energy-hungry world and make the energy benefits more widely accessible, such technologies should be in responsible hands and technological solutions worked out to minimise the proliferation concerns. Simply depending on inspection and policing regimes and placing additional restrictions on ENR technologies, though necessary, could in fact jeopardise the larger contribution of nuclear energy to sustainable development and bring the climate change-related threat closer. We need to realise that restricting access to fuller carbon-free nuclear energy potential could present far greater risks to humankind eventually.
During the Bush regime, restrictions were sought to be placed on transfer of ENR technologies to countries that do not have them already. This would have limited the spread of these sensitive technologies, with India remaining eligible for their transfers, as we already have our own technology in this area. The latest NSG decision has changed the logic completely: it essentially targets India as we are the only country outside the NPT eligible for nuclear transfers.
For us, a closed fuel cycle involving reprocessing of uranium and thorium has been an integral part of our policy from the beginning of our nuclear energy programme. While our interest in thorium arises primarily due to the huge energy potential that thorium provides for us, it is now becoming increasingly clear that the thorium fuel cycle also offers several advantages with respect to proliferation resistance. Since thorium by itself does not have a fissile component, it needs initial fissile inputs. Enriched uranium with thorium makes for an efficient fuel that could produce as much energy from mined uranium and leads to used fuel that can be recycled with a much-reduced proliferation risk. Uranium enrichment has thus a special significance in the context of the thorium-based proliferation-resistant fuel cycle as well. Given the present comprehensive capability and the rapid pace towards reaching the full objectives of the three-stage programme, Indian developmental efforts could well be a part of the solution the world is so desperately seeking. While we have a well-defined programme ahead of us for setting up reactors as well as fuel cycle facilities to support a growing power programme, progressively these technologies would evolve towards large-scale thorium utilisation. This programme being somewhat unique would anyway have to be evolved by us on our own. However, the inherent proliferation-resistant features of thorium that are of wider interest should have led to greater interest in collaboration with India. That somehow does not seem to be the case, at least for the present.
There is also a question of supply of other hardware and equipment not specifically concerning ENR technologies to enrichment and reprocessing plants that India might set up under IAEA safeguards. Clearly, there could be a number of alternative approaches to configuring such plants. Denial of a specific hardware or equipment cannot be allowed to jeopardise a mutually satisfactory resolution between the IAEA and India to ensure the safeguardability of such plants.
We live in an interdependent world where the terms of engagement depend upon how strong and capable you are. We have an ongoing mission to expand the share of nuclear energy in our energy mix to meet our rapidly growing energy needs and to reduce carbon intensity in our energy production. With the framework for international civil nuclear cooperation and the key provisions that are already in place, we can accelerate that process keeping our strategic interests intact. We however need to exercise caution and due diligence at every specific step as we negotiate the establishment of nuclear power plants with France, Russia, the U.S., and possibly others and as we do so, also press for adherence to the letter and spirit of our understandings.
There is also the question of NSG membership in the air. It would be strange if India were to become a member of a group that denies us cooperation on the basis of the NPT.
(Dr Anil Kakodkar, an eminent nuclear scientist, is a former Chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission. He was a key negotiator of the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal.)