India’s Civil And Military Nuclear Facilities —  The Challenges And Pitfalls

By Ranjit B Rai


New Delhi, 24 December 2005

After some anxious pit stops the Dr Manmohan Singh–Bush nuclear cooperation agreement signed on 18th July, which enjoins India’s to separate its nuclear facilities in to civil and military, appears to be back on track. India’s Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran accompanied by India’s nuclear experts carried India’s separation plan to Washington’s foggy bottom and presented it to Robert Nicholas Burns, US Under Secretary of State. It is reported the discussions went off well. This document nominates which atomic reactors and facilities will be made open for IAEA inspection and safeguards, and may or may not depict the military reactors and laboratories associated with weapons’ programme that support India’s nuclear arsenal. It is presumed the cost factor and time frame of separation will not come into play at this stage, though these will be crucial. Unfortunately most Members of Parliament have shown little interest in the technicalities of this matter, because of security considerations and India’s antiquated Official Secrets Act, 1923. Nuclear issues have also been kept out of the purview of the Parliamentary Committee for Defence. The good news is the plan will become public knowledge when presented to the US Congressional committees to enable change in US laws to provide India nuclear technology for peaceful uses, primarily for energy. In India, the military who are charged to operate India’s second strike are not in the technical nuclear loop yet, but they too will have to get involved when the separation is executed. At present the subject is taboo in uniformed circles, since only a few selected IAF Mirages and now possibly the SU 30MKIs are nominated as the primary bomb delivery vehicles, and India’s nuclear missile forces are still to deploy and exercise operationally for nuclear war. At present training is for nuclear defence, which the Navy has been pursuing since the 60s and all large Indian Navy ships are built to ‘citadel’ specifications to ride out a nuclear explosion at sea.

A large Navy and DRDO contingent is also engaged in India’s nuclear submarine construction programme which goes under the misnomer ‘Advanced Technology Vehicle’ (ATV) at New Delhi (Aakanshka, meaning Hope), Vishakapatnam (SBF for construction), Kalpakam (IGAR reactor and training) and Hyderabad (for BHEL Turbines, pumps, compressors and metallurgy). This challenging and most expensive (media reports it has expended more funds than the LCA programme) has been in existence for over two decades and the personnel possess nuclear knowledge and have hands on experience of operating reactors and dealing with nuclear material, some with training in Russia. A nuclear submarine employs enriched uranium as fuel, and Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee speaking from Moscow in November while on a visit this year did yeoman service by acknowledging this hush hush project steered from PMO like our nuclear programme. He confirmed Russia’s assurance to help complete the ATV. The Indian uranium enrichment facility at Ratehalli near Mysore called “Iyengar Village” has also become public in the course of discussions for separation and media has speculated that India may have used enriched uranium for one or two of its Shakti explosions. It is to be seen if this enrichment facilty and the ATV facilities at Kalpakam will come under safeguards. It is no wonder Iran is smarting as it too wants to enrich uranium and it feels gagged and discriminated as irresponsible. Iran does not have the cover up of a nuclear submarine programme, which route was pursued by Brazil for some time, but it retracted under pressure in the 80s. South Africa too under Waldo Stumpf who visited India in 1983 seeking cooperation went nuclear, produced a uranium bomb and many claim tested it in a neighbouring country then closed the programme, but surely possess the ability and the facility. This is well documented and this time around Saran’s pitch has been to assure the US which is keen to supply civil nuclear technology that the help will in no way contribute to India’s weapon programme, and begs to reason that India’s strategic interests are vital. This is the right way to go as USA has doubts about China’s ambitions in Asia.

A lot of home work has been done in USA on India’s separation and is in the public domain. Nuclear experts Ashley Tellis, Stephen Cohen, Satu Lamaye and Frankel have tabled their testimonies to the Senators dealing with the subject. Ashley Tellis formerly of Rand Corporation and Ambassador Blackwill’s Security Adviser in Delhi was given a free run to visit India’s nuclear facilities and inter act with scientists and the military. He succeeded in the mission to steer India’s nuclear ambition towards a recessed arsenal. Stephen Cohen has spent time in India and is conversant with India’s defence capabilities. Recently India’s nuclear expert Raja Menon a former submariner himself trained in Russia spent three months at the Sandia National Laboratories in USA, scripting India’s road map. Sandia is a Lockheed Martin Company funded by the US Department of Energy, National Nuclear Administration and Defence. Its primary mission is to ensure the U.S. nuclear arsenal is safe, secure, reliable, and employs the most advanced and failsafe technologies to fulfill USA’s responsibilities as stewards of the nuclear stockpile.

USA’s House International Relations Committee dealing with the subject held hearings on November 16. While, opinion in the HIRC seems to have sprung in favor of the July 18 nuclear deal, some impediments the Indian side will have to watch were expressed. The US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Robert James, was emphatic in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on November 2, that: "India's separation of its civil and military nuclear infrastructure must be conducted in a credible and transparent manner, and be defensible from a nonproliferation standpoint. In other words, the separation and the resultant safeguards must contribute to our(USA’s) nonproliferation goals". He added: "To ensure that the United States and other potential suppliers(NSG) can confidently supply to India and meet our obligations under the NPT, safeguards must be applied in perpetuity. Further, the separation must ensure -- and the safeguards must confirm -- that cooperation 'does not in any way assist' in the development or production of nuclear weapons. In this context, nuclear materials in the civil sector should not be transferred out of the civil sector." And finally: "In this context, several countries have argued that it is integral to maintaining the integrity of the global regime that India not be granted de jure or de facto status as a nuclear weapon State under the NPT. For this reason, many have indicated that a "voluntary offer" arrangement of the type in place in the five internationally-recognized nuclear weapon States would not be acceptable for India”.

What should worry India is injection of the "In perpetuity" demand. This is not something required of the five de jure Nuclear Weapons States under NPT, who can make changes. Not much is specified in the July 18 agreement. Hence a lot will depend on how the actual legislation is drafted when Congress debates the issue, and the discussions India has had in DC. The Indian public now needs to engaged about the unclassified aspects of this very momentous step taken by the Prime Minister to safe guard India’s future energy and security needs. The deal needs to be supported to the hilt in India’s long term interests as its economy and stature rises in the comity of nations.

(Cmde Ranjit B Rai (Retd) is a Defence Analyst who had studied NATO–WARSAW nuclear issues at the Royal Naval Staff College, Greenwich where the training nuclear reactor Jason was situated for training naval officers and sailors.)

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