Nuclear pursuits

COMPARED WITH the protracted excitement and controversy over the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, the resumption of India-Canada nuclear cooperation that was abruptly ruptured 36 years ago has received little attention. This may be because despite its undoubted significance the accord between the two countries — signed in the presence of the two countries’ Prime Ministers in Toronto on the sidelines of the Group of Twenty (G-20) Summit — is entirely non-controversial. It is also beneficial to both sides and inimical to no third country.
Not many people remember that Canada was the first country to help India embark on its nuclear programme, as drawn up by legendary Homi Bhabha. While a British-supplied Apsara reactor was the first to be set up in this country, Canada’s Cirus reactor, called “Candu” by the Canadians, was the second. But it suited India’s needs and Dr Bhabha’s grand design, based on Indian realities, much better. For, unlike Apsara, it used natural uranium fuel with heavy water as moderator and thus freed us from dependence on uncertain imports of enriched uranium. No wonder then that Candu became the prototype for the subsequent reactors installed in this country. At the time of the signing of the Cirus agreement there was no International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or a safeguards system. So the only condition the India-Canada agreement contained was that this country would use the plutonium produced by the reactor for “peaceful purposes” only.
Fast forward to May 18, 1974: On that day India conducted an underground nuclear detonation in Pokhran, Rajasthan, now known as Pokhran I. The then Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, somewhat angrily terminated his country’s nuclear cooperation with India. Indira Gandhi’s argument that what India had conducted was a peaceful nuclear experiment (PNE) for economic purposes was perfectly valid. PNEs were much in vogue then. The US had conducted 28 and the Soviet Union as many as 239 explosions of the same kind. But this evidently made no difference to Trudeau. Canada walked out of the half-completed second reactor at Rana Pratap Sagar in Rajasthan, a project that the Russians completed later. Furthermore, since then Canada, invoking the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG), had also been enforcing a ban on the export to India of dual use technology and materials.
All this is now a thing of the past. The 36-year-old chasm has been bridged. In fact, the potential of the Toronto accord is immense. Canada will almost certainly join other nuclear reactor-exporting countries, such as the US, France and Russia, to seek a share in this country’s huge and growing nuclear market. To India some of the finely-honed Canadian nuclear technologies would be of great interest. Most importantly, Canada is the world’s biggest producer of uranium of which India is very short. It is no secret that during the last two years lack of uranium had forced some nuclear power stations to curtail production.
However, if there is an excellent and highly promising nuclear accord in hand, there are several developments in the complex and oft-manipulated area of nuclear trade and diplomacy in the works that can lead to discord and other complications, and should therefore be a cause for concern. Of these the most notable is China’s defiant decision to supply Pakistan two new nuclear reactors to be established in the plutonium-producing Chashma atomic complex in Pakistan’s Punjab. This is in clear violation of the written assurances China gave the NSG while joining it in 2004. Even at that time it had insisted that the two reactors it was then selling to Pakistan were “grandfathered” much before it had applied for the NSG membership. These two reactors are nearing completion at Chashma. Some champions of non-proliferation, including the US, gently suggested that Beijing should ask for the NSG’s approval, as was done in the case of the Indo-Soviet nuclear deal. But this fell on deaf ears. The only assurance Beijing is prepared to give is that the reactors it proposes to sell to its ally would be under the IAEA safeguards.
Under the circumstances the general expectation was that the 46-member NSG would take up this issue at its meeting at Christchurch, New Zealand, in the last week of June. In fact, an “army” of non-proliferation enthusiasts had descended on the meeting’s venue to press for nuclear-trade guidelines being “observed fully by all concerned”. But the result was an anti-climax. A former Indian governor of the IAEA, T.P. Sreenivasan, has described the situation aptly. Writing under the heading “The Nuclear Suppliers’ Group’s Shameful Silence”, he says: China’s “blatant violation” was “on everyone’s mind but nobody’s lips… The US was nowhere to be found”. Perhaps to explain the American reluctance to cause any offence to China, the writer quotes a “senior White House spokesman” to the effect: “India imitates China, Pakistan imitates India. What can we do to stop their nuclear activities?” The same spokesman is reported to have added that US did not want to “displease China or Pakistan”. This bespeaks of China’s clout on the one hand and Pakistan’s importance in the American scheme of things in relation to Afghanistan, on the other.
Selig Harrison, a respected American writer and foreign policy expert, is even more sharply critical of the US equivocation on Chinese reactors to Pakistan, but his is a voice in the wilderness. The US needs China for a number of reasons, including economy, war on terror and North Korean nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari is already in Beijing. Nobody should be surprised if the agreement on the two reactors is signed during his six-day visit.
There is another cause for concern for India in the form of a move within the NSG to prohibit the transfer of reprocessing and enrichment technologies to countries that haven’t signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (read India). If accepted by the nuclear cartel, this would retrospectively dilute the 123 Agreement between India and the US and the NSG’s own “clean waiver” under which India is fully entitled to get these two technologies. At Christchurch the matter was not taken up. But it hasn’t been dropped either.

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