Nuclear India

Friday, March 3, 2006

THE BUSH administration concluded a deal yesterday on nuclear cooperation with India, stating its willingness to supply India with civilian nuclear technology and thereby effectively accept India's status as a nuclear-weapons power. The deal requires approval from Congress, which will be asked to pass legislation allowing civil nuclear cooperation to go ahead, as well as from other countries that form part of the nuclear suppliers' group. During the arguments to come, critics will probe the details of yesterday's agreement, as indeed they should. But the accord could deliver big gains, particularly when compared with the absence of a deal rather than with some imagined perfect one.

The clearest win out of yesterday's bargain is a closer relationship with India, the world's most populous democracy, an emerging powerhouse in engineering and medicine, and a potential counterweight both to militant Islam and China. But there are other wins, too. Allowing India to import foreign technology for its civilian nuclear program will boost global efforts to develop new sources of energy, particularly sources that won't increase the level of climate-warming gases. In exchange for the opportunity to import nuclear know-how, India will disentangle its civilian nuclear program from its weapons-building facilities, subjecting the civilian side to multilateral inspections designed to ensure that technology or fissile material isn't diverted for military purposes. Again, this represents a gain: Currently only four of India's nuclear facilities are subject to foreign safeguards, and these are less muscular than the inspections to which India will be submitting. Finally, India will promise not to export nuclear equipment or material deemed sensitive by other nuclear powers. At present, India respects these international rules; in the future it would be formally committed to them.

The deal can be criticized, however. India has agreed to place 14 of its 22 reactors under international safeguards, but these exclude its two fast-breeder reactors, the main sources of bomb-making material. National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley referred yesterday to "a commitment for India to put future civilian breeder reactors under safeguards," but he admitted that it would be up to India to decide whether future reactors are designated as civilian. The prospect of a potentially large plutonium-making program outside the scope of multilateral inspections is not a setback relative to the status quo, since the status quo involves minimal inspections. Still, it could be argued that yesterday's deal is a missed chance: The carrot of foreign civilian nuclear technology could perhaps have been used to bring a larger share of India's program under multilateral safeguards.

The biggest question is whether this agreement will weaken efforts to control other aspiring nuclear powers. The Bush administration hopes that the bargain at the heart of the Non-Proliferation Treaty will remain intact: Nonnuclear countries will renounce their bomb-building ambitions in exchange for help in building civilian power stations; countries that cheat and seek to build bombs will risk United Nations sanctions. Now that India has built bombs yet stands to get civilian help anyway, the risk is that other countries may demand the same deal. To the extent that these countries have nuclear allies that find it convenient to promote their bomb-making ambitions, the India precedent could weaken the international consensus against proliferation.

The Bush administration argues that India is an exception, not a precedent. For one thing, it never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so it is different from North Korea, Iran or other potential bombmakers. For another, it has earned the right to be trusted with nuclear weapons by refusing to sell its military know-how to others, so distinguishing itself from irresponsible Pakistan. These arguments are reasonable, but they won't be worth a lot in practice if the rest of the world is deaf to them. Having negotiated yesterday's deal, the Bush administration needs to sell it.

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