By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
In a setback for the administration's efforts to win approval of a landmark nuclear pact with India, former senator Sam Nunn said yesterday that he has serious concerns the deal would harm the "United States' vital interest" in preventing nuclear proliferation and urged Congress to set conditions for its support.
"Congress has a duty to look at the broader framework," Nunn, a moderate and highly respected Georgia Democrat who still has broad influence in both parties on proliferation and military matters, said in an interview. "If I were still in Congress, I would be skeptical and looking at conditions that could be attached."
Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns warned lawmakers last week that congressionally mandated conditions could cause the agreement to unravel. He and other administration officials say the agreement is a groundbreaking achievement that will bring India, which has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, into the nonproliferation mainstream, while bolstering U.S.-India ties and adding jobs to the U.S. economy.
But Nunn, who was briefed on the deal by State Department officials last week, said he is concerned it would lead to the spread of weapons-grade nuclear material, unleash a regional arms race with China and Pakistan, and make it more difficult for the United States to win support for sanctions against nuclear renegades such as Iran and North Korea. Nunn is a board member of General Electric Co. -- which built nuclear power reactors in India before New Delhi conducted its first nuclear test in 1974 -- but he said he thinks the economic benefits are overstated.
The administration last week proposed legislation that would exempt India from sections of the Atomic Energy Act that restrict trade with countries that are not party to nuclear treaties. The proposal already faces an uphill battle in Congress, where key lawmakers such as Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, have remained neutral. The administration has actively sought, without much success, the support of moderate opinion leaders such as Nunn.
Under the pact, India is to separate its civilian and military nuclear programs over the next eight years to gain U.S. expertise and nuclear fuel to meet its rapidly rising energy needs. India's civilian facilities would be subject for the first time to permanent international inspections, but the agreement does not require oversight of India's prototype fast-breeder reactors, which can produce significant amounts of weapons-grade plutonium when fully operational.
The Bush administration originally sought a plan that would have allowed India to continue producing material for six to 10 weapons each year, but the new plan would allow India enough fissile material for as many as 50 weapons a year. Experts said this would far exceed what is believed to be its current capacity.
Nunn said that among the conditions he would attach to the legislation is the requirement it could not take effect until the president certifies that India pledges not to produce nuclear materials, such as plutonium or highly enriched uranium, for weapons. The current agreement "certainly does not curb in any way the proliferation of weapons-grade nuclear material," Nunn said.
"India was a lot better negotiator than we were," Nunn asserted. While the administration has said it has no intention of aiding India's nuclear weapons program, "the reality could be the opposite," he said. "The administration has a high burden to explain this."
Nunn added that suggestions by some former and current administration officials that it might be in the United States' interest to allow India to build up its strategic capabilities is "totally counterproductive and dangerous reasoning."
Nunn, who served in the Senate for 24 years, is co-chairman and chief executive of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organization that seeks to reduce the global threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Lugar is also a board member of NTI, and the two men wrote the Nunn-Lugar Act, which has helped destroy thousands of nuclear warheads in the former Soviet Union.
In an interview published yesterday in the Indianapolis Star, Lugar said he might favor the legislation if he were convinced that the new relationship was in the United States' best interests, that there were "considerable if not complete" safeguards on the spread of nuclear fuel and that it would lead to a reduction of oil consumption.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has vowed an all-out push to win approval of the agreement, saying it would be a boon for U.S. business. But it has also sparked a backlash from nonproliferation experts who believe it will lead to the unraveling of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which sought to limit the number of nuclear weapons states.
"Nunn's voice carries weight," said Henry D. Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and a Pentagon official in the George H.W. Bush administration, who opposes the agreement. "We have waited for a moderate, respected voice to speak clear sense on these matters. Now that he's spoken, it would be very strange if Congress doesn't listen."