The Impact of the Indo-U.S. Nuclear Deal on the NPT and the Global Climate Regime

Nuclear Breakfast! Photo by Dr Case / Creative Commons-License 2.0

December 8, 2009
By M. V. Ramana
The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) decision to lift the ban on nuclear trade with India in September 2008 constituted yet another blow to an already beleaguered Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and global non-proliferation regime. It also has the effect of promoting nuclear power, a problematic technology; the emphasis on nuclear power is likely to deflect from the adoption of more ecologically sustainable sources of electricity generation.

Like many other assaults on the non-proliferation order, the US-India deal is a violation of both procedure and substance. The basic bargain underlying the NPT is that non-weapon states would get access to nuclear technology in exchange for giving up the possibility of developing nuclear weapons. Implicit in this bargain is that no country that acquired nuclear weapons would gain access to nuclear technology. The nuclear deal is a clear violation of this implicit understanding. Procedurally, if such a deal were to be agreed to at all, it should have been voted on by all the 189 states that are party to the NPT rather than just by a minority of countries, i.e. members of the NSG. By its very constitution, the NSG, consisting mostly of countries that engage in and profit from nuclear commerce, is a biased body, not suited to decide on the future of non-proliferation norms.

Not only is India being allowed to bypass the bargain underlying the NPT, but the deal will actually allow India to expand its nuclear arsenal, permitting it to buy fuel for nuclear power reactors on the international market while using scarce domestic uranium for nuclear weapons production. This option has been suggested by, among others, K. Subrahmanyam, former head of the National Security Advisory Board, who has argued that “Given India’s uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our …nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India's advantage to categorize as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refueled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons grade plutonium production.” Lack of uranium in recent years actually forced the Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to limit the operation of its nuclear reactors; several were shut down and the commissioning of new ones was delayed.

The prime instigator of granting India this exception was the United States

The sour irony in the decision is that the export control norms that the NSG agreed to were shaped and promoted largely by the United States ever since the late 1970s following India exploding a nuclear device in 1974 using plutonium produced in a research reactor supplied by Canada that used heavy water supplied by the U.S. Once the U.S. started the idea of a nuclear deal in 2005, France, U.K. and Russia joined in campaigning for the NSG waiver in the hope of selling billions of dollars worth of nuclear reactors and other accessories. The many NSG states that did oppose the deal were stifled by the United States, which engaged in what Jayantha Dhanapala, former United Nations Under Secretary General for Disarmament Affairs, described as a campaign of “brutal and unconscionable pressure”. Since the deal, many of the countries advocating the deal, including France, Russia, and, most recently, Canada have entered into nuclear deals with India.

The arguments used by those promoting the nuclear deal will likely have deleterious consequences. In the words of Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, “It creates a dangerous distinction between ‘good’ proliferators and ‘bad’ proliferators and sends out misleading signals to the international community with regard to NPT norms. It will make the task of winning international support to contain and constrain the nuclear programs of North Korea, Iran, and potential proliferators more difficult”. There have also been unconfirmed news reports of renewed cooperation between Pakistan and China on nuclear reactors. On occasion, China has argued that the exception made for India is a good precedent for itself supplying Pakistan with nuclear reactors as long as they are safeguarded.

We now turn to the impact of the nuclear deal on the ongoing efforts to come up with a global regime that can deal with catastrophic climate change. This is primarily through the boost that an expanding nuclear program in India will give to the sagging nuclear industry. The nuclear deal was justified by many as necessary to avoid climate change. For example, Ashley Tellis, one of the architects of the nuclear deal, wrote that India “has enormous energy needs that cannot be satisfied without access to nuclear fuel (and to nuclear power more generally), if it is simultaneously expected to help mitigate the problems of climate change and environmental degradation”.

Indeed, climate change has been the main motivation for much of the talk about a nuclear resurgence. However, all this talk has not translated into large scale construction of nuclear reactors. Probably the single greatest hurdle has been the very high construction costs of nuclear reactors. Therefore, in many countries, the nuclear industry has turned to getting governments to give them financial credit for not emitting carbon as a way to partially compensate for its appalling economics.

At a more global level, ever since the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, there has been a sustained effort undertaken by organizations representing the nuclear industry to various pro-nuclear countries to get nuclear power included amongst the technologies allowed in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM allows industrialized countries, which are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Protocol, to invest in projects that reduce emissions in developing countries, as partial fulfilment of their obligations. Including nuclear power within the ambit of CDM would allow many developing countries, including India, to obtain carbon credits for building reactors. Fortunately, these have been unsuccessful so far. But in the lead up to Copenhagen, the nuclear lobby has been active in trying to allow for nuclear projects to receive credit for reducing carbon emissions.

Why Nuclear Power Cannot Be a Good Solution to Climate Change

The extension of CDM credits for nuclear power is a problem simply because there are many reasons why nuclear power cannot be a good solution to climate change. To start with, what is most obvious is that such a solution exchanges the problem of climate change for the well-known problems of nuclear power – its potential for catastrophic accidents, the production of long-lived radioactive waste, and its link with nuclear weapons. Despite what the nuclear industry claims, nuclear technology still comes with these characteristics.

More fundamentally, nuclear technology, because it is expensive, fits in with an energy paradigm that makes sense only in a society that relies on increasing levels of concentrated energy use. Nuclear power tends to require and promote a supply oriented energy policy, and an energy intensive pattern of development. Such a pattern of development adds to the problem of global warming. Climate change cannot be tackled without confronting and changing Western, especially American, patterns of energy consumption, and the adoption of similar patterns by the elite in the developing world.

Finally, it is not possible to simultaneously support centralized generation and expect the growth of a large-scale decentralized and renewable electricity generation system that many see as necessary to combat climate change. That the growth of nuclear power often leads to a neglect of renewable energy systems is borne out by comparing the 2008-9 budgets of India’s DAE – Rs. 67.77 billions (approximately US$1.45 billion) – and the Renewable Energy Ministry – Rs. 5.09 billion. This difference in levels of funding has been historically true.

The climate and the non-proliferation regimes are crucial to protect our world from the two potential crises of catastrophic climate change and nuclear war. These regimes should be strengthened not weakened. Promoting nuclear power will weaken these regimes, make nuclear war more likely, and is unlikely to protect us from climate change. It is time to move away from nuclear power towards more sustainable ways of generating electricity. 

Dr M. V. Ramana (India) is a physicist working at the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs, Princeton University.