OPINION

Left queries on safeguards thrust spotlight on ‘corrective measures’

Siddharth Varadarajan

The government feels vagueness keeps international critics at bay.

Following the formal withdrawal of Left support to the United Progressive Alliance, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its three partners have issued a statement challenging the government’s decision to keep the text of the safeguards agreement negotiated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) a “secret.”

Fearing a disconnect between the government’s assurances and the actual text, the Left said it had five pointed concerns about the agreement that the UPA had not addressed. These were: (1) In case the U.S. or other countries in the NSG renege on fuel supply assurances for imported reactors, will we have the ability to withdraw these reactors from IAEA safeguards? (2) If U.S./NSG countries renege on fuel supply assurances, can we withdraw our indigenous civilian reactors from IAEA safeguards? (3) If we have to bring nuclear fuel from the non-safeguarded part of our nuclear programme for these reactors in case of fuel supply assurances not being fulfilled, will we have the ability to take (the spent fuel) back again? (4) What are the corrective steps that India can take if fuel supplies are interrupted by the U.S./NSG countries? (5) What are the conditions that India will have to fulfil if the corrective steps are to be put into operation?

Though the Left has raised five separate queries, they all revolve around the one big imponderable that has animated both the United States government and the nuclear deal’s non-proliferation critics internationally ever since India came up with its separation plan on March 2, 2006: Just what exactly is meant by the phrase “corrective measures”? These are the measures India says it may take “to ensure uninterrupted operation of its civilian nuclear reactors in the event of disruption of foreign fuel supplies.” The phrase, which appears in paragaraph 15(c) of the Separation Plan, was a condition the Indian negotiators tagged on to the list of fuel supply assurances they said India needed in order to accept the American demand to “place its civilian nuclear facilities under India-specific safeguards in perpetuity and negotiate an appropriate safeguards agreement to this end with the IAEA.”

Both during the hard-fought talks on March 1 and 2, 2006, and subsequently, in the negotiations the two sides held on the 123 agreement, the Indian team constantly parried all American attempts to spell out or define just what was meant by “corrective measures.” Egged on by the American non-proliferation lobby, U.S. officials wanted to know, for example, whether corrective measures would include the withdrawal of a civilian facility from safeguards. Indian officials stonewalled, pointing out that since the eventuality of corrective measures could only arise if the continuous operation of India’s civilian nuclear reactors was interrupted, it was essential that fuel arrangements be as foolproof and watertight as possible.

When, during the 123 negotiations, the Indian team found the U.S. side backsliding on the commitments contained in paragraph 15 of the Separation Plan, a major fight ensued. The result was that the entire paragraph was incorporated into the 123 agreement by ‘cut and paste.’

Though declining to provide details, sources familiar with the draft safeguards agreement said the compromise package contained in paragraph 15 of the Separation Plan had been “fully protected” in the text India has negotiated with the IAEA secretariat and that the country had a range of rights it could invoke should the need arise.

The truth of this assertion can only be established once the safeguards agreement is made public but even then, it is unlikely that the text will shed any fresh light on the Left’s specific questions. Nor is the UPA likely to be more forthcoming than it has been so far.

For the government, the dilemma is a difficult one. The vagueness of language has helped India keep the nuclear deal’s critics abroad guessing, thereby blunting one of their main allegations that the nuclear agreement represents a “proliferation risk.” Critics overseas are arguing that “corrective measures” means India reserves the right to withdraw safeguarded facilities from international inspection at some point in the future and may indeed do so once it has imported enough nuclear fuel to make up its domestic shortfall.

But in the politically charged domestic arena, where the government finds itself accused of compromising the national interest, the same opaqueness of phraseology is now inviting further suspicion. Were the Prime Minister to fend off his domestic critics by providing the assurances they seek, chances are the level of international opposition to the nuclear agreement would increase dramatically. Silence, however, is not an option either, especially since the government has not been entirely convincing in its arguments with the Left and other critics on other aspects of the nuclear deal such as the impact it might have and has already had on the conduct of the country’s foreign and defence policy.

By citing the precedent of Tarapur, which was left in the lurch after the Americans cut off fuel, the CPI(M) and its allies have pointed to a potential vulnerability that the Department of Atomic Energy and government insist they have sought to protect the country from. Imported reactors without the fuel to run them would be little more than (radioactive) white elephants. But whichever way one defines “corrective measures,” it is hard to see how these would lead to the flow of fuel for a safeguarded reactor whose supplies have been cut off.

Fuel supplies may be withheld if India were to test another nuclear weapon, especially if the present international moratorium on testing continues to hold or actually gets converted into all the major nuclear weapon states signing and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Under such a situation, the only insurance India can hope to rely on would be the strategic stockpile of fuel that it would presumably have built up prior to any resumption of testing.

Of course, fuel can be cut off for other reasons too. Again, a general stockpile would provide some comfort, though the inventory carrying cost and safety implications of holding nuclear fuel reserves would need to be taken into account. At the same time, the best guarantee for the uninterrupted running of safeguarded reactors would be the emergence of an international political environment in which India, as an important power, could have full confidence. This, in turn, would mean pursuing a foreign policy that privileges polycentrism rather than unipolarity, a point the government’s critics accuse it of forgetting. ‘Corrective’ measures, in the final analysis, are less important than ‘pre-emptive’ ones. Somewhere in the debate over text, the wider context of politics should not be lost sight of.

Recommended for you