Sunday, April 09, 2006

Congress Should Pass the Indo-US Deal

It is easy to criticize the controversial nuclear technology and supplies agreement with India. Certainly, plenty of people are beginning to weigh in against it as Congress takes up the matter.

The deal was announced on March 2 during President George W. Bush’s state visit to India. Under it, India agreed to designate which of its nuclear reactors were for military purposes and which where for civilian electric power production.

The civilian reactors, some of them anyway, would come under international safeguards and inspections. In return, the US would supply nuclear technology and perhaps enriched uranium, even though New Delhi never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Implementation requires Congress to exempt India from certain sections of the Atomic Energy Act. This is going to be a tough sell for many reasons. For one thing, Congressmen are in a testy mood. Even Republicans are angry that the Bush administration continues to spring things on them without prior consultation.

Bush unveiled the deal in New Delhi without first consulting anyone. Apparently, nobody in Congress was alerted to the deal even when it was in its formative stages last summer. So the administration has that against it.

But members and other influential voices have more substantive concerns, since the deal seems to overturn many time-honored notions about nuclear non-proliferation. Former President Jimmy Carter, for example, has weighed in against the deal. He has credibility on these issues. As president he stopped America’s breeder reactor program.

Others complain that Washington pushed a soft deal, essentially gave away the store for a cheap foreign policy victory. India still gets to keep eight of its 22 reactors out of the inspections regime. Breeder reactors are exempt too, and it is up to New Delhi whether to declare any new reactor as being open to inspections.

As I said, it is easy to find fault with the deal.

That said, Congress should pass the necessary legislation. In the long run it is in America’s best interests. Why?

The easy answer is that the deal sets aside years of acrimony that stretch back to the Cold War years when India was effectively a Soviet ally and ties India closer to the U.S. as a “counter” against a rising China. Never mind that India is rising too.

I’m sure there is something in this, but there is a more compelling reason that has to do with energy resources. The biggest long-term threat to world peace comes from competition for increasingly scarce energy resources. Helping India use more nuclear power is one way of deflecting that trend.

B.S. Prakash, India’s Consul-General in San Francisco, put it best: “The crux of the deal is that India, which is growing by 8% annually, has huge energy needs, and we have very, very limited options. The key to this deal is to look at India’s energy needs and not so much on India’s weapons programs on which there has been excessive focus.”

India has much in common with China. Both have huge populations, both are urbanizing at a rapid pace, both depend on coal and imported oil to meet most of their energy needs. As is well-known, much of Beijing’s diplomacy in recent years has been directed at securing energy. India’s deal with the US might be seen in a similar light.

Both countries have civilian nuclear power plants, but they supply a small amount (2-3%, roughly) of their energy needs. India aims to boost this proportion to 25% by 2050, but to do so it undoubtedly needs to import more uranium.

India is not overly supplied with uranium. It has to scrounge just to keep its current plants in operation. Earlier this month New Delhi announced it was buying enriched uranium from Russia to fuel its Tarapur reactor (built by General Electric in the 1960s).

Considering that the purchase came at an inopportune time when Congress is debating the nuclear deal, one has to figure that the Indians were pretty desperate to keep this power plant in operation.

It is a truism that most of the world’s petroleum deposits lie in unstable countries and regions. Uranium deposits are in friendlier hands. Australia is the Saudi Arabia of uranium, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that at this moment Australia and China are signing an agreement that will allow China to buy uranium from Australia and even prospect and mine new deposits.

Canberra still declines to sell India uranium because it did not sign the NPT, but that could change, especially in view of the US-Indo agreement. Prime Minister John Howard has said some things that seem to imply that Canberra will take another look at India.

This agreement overturns a long-held Australian predisposition not to export uranium to anyone, and the Labor Party is still opposed to the deal. It only shows again how the imperatives of energy are impacting and sometimes supplanting the nuclear proliferation concerns.


Blogger Gaurav Jain said...

I agree that the US Congress should pass the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. That seems, as you have correctly pointed out, to be in the interests of both the nations, and also in the interests of the world's future energy needs. India should start generating Electricity using civilian nuclear energy, as this will help boost its energy needs and also help boost the Indian Economy in the future. I must congratulate the US President for taking this proactive and bold decision, and 'looking into the future'. It's most important for the political establishments of all countries to look into the future, well beyond their own terms in office, and that is when the real development can take place in any part of the world.

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