Seventeen Myths about the Indian Nuclear Deal: An Analysis of Nuclear Cooperation with India

In 1974, when India conducted its first nuclear weapon test, no country was more surprised than the United States. The only nuclear explosive material India had on hand was plutonium, and the plutonium had been made in a Canadian-supplied reactor that India was running with sensitive “heavy water” imported from the United States. India had promised explicitly to restrict both the reactor and the heavy water to peaceful use. It was obvious, however, that India was running a secret bomb program under the guise of peaceful energy cooperation.

The United States reacted by passing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978. It prohibited the sale of American reactors, or reactor fuel, or heavy water, or similar items to countries like India that rejected the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and refused to put all of their nuclear material under international inspection. The law embodied a policy of providing the strongest possible support to the treaty.

President George W. Bush has now asked Congress to reverse this policy, so that nuclear trade with India can recommence. If Congress agrees, it will have to change the law in order to exempt India from the criteria laid down in the 1978 act. The president will also have to persuade the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a consortium of countries that have banded together to restrict nuclear exports, to make an exception for India because India does not meet the Group’s export criteria either.

The president has taken this action after making a deal with India in July 2005. Under the deal, the United States would effectively endorse India’s nuclear weapon effort in exchange for benefits that have proved rather difficult to define. When the deal is examined, it is hard to see a real prize for the United States. Yet, the supporters of the deal have repeatedly put forth claims that greatly exaggerate the supposed benefits. The claims have been repeated so often as to take on the aura of myths. Virtually absent, however, has been any discussion of the attendant risks of reopening this trade. This report tries to give a more balanced view. For each of the administration’s claims, Congress is told the risks. The objective is to enable Congress to see more clearly what is at stake.

Myth #1: The deal will bring India into the “nonproliferation mainstream” and help stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

Fact: The deal leaves India far outside the international effort to combat nuclear arms proliferation. India continues to oppose the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has pointedly refused to sign it. It has just as pointedly refused to limit its production of nuclear weapons, or to obligate itself not to test such weapons. It has also refused to stop making fissile material for such weapons. Nor has India joined Europe and the United States in condemning Iran’s enrichment of uranium. The deal does not change India’s negative stance on any of these questions; instead, it legitimizes it.

Myth #2: India’s agreement to allow 14 of its 22 power reactors to be inspected is a “gain for nonproliferation.”

Fact: Inspecting these reactors will not limit India’s nuclear weapon production in any way. The other eight reactors, which will be barred from inspection, will make more plutonium for weapons than India will ever need. Thus, the offer to inspect the fourteen is merely symbolic. Among the eight reactors off limits to inspectors will be India’s fast breeder reactors, which will generate plutonium particularly suited to bomb-making. In addition, the inspections themselves will waste resources. The International Atomic Energy Agency has a limited number of inspectors and is already having trouble meeting its responsibilities. To send inspectors to India on a fool’s errand will mean that they won’t be going to places like Iran, where something may really be amiss. Unless the Agency’s budget is increased to meet the new burden in India, the inspections there will produce a net loss for the world’s non-proliferation effort.

Myth #3: India has made other new commitments that will help stop proliferation.

Fact: India made only one new promise under the deal, which is to adhere to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol. The protocol allows for more extensive inspections, but is irrelevant to India because the purpose is to unmask hidden nuclear weapon activities. India, however, has a known nuclear weapon program, so there is nothing to unmask. India’s other promises were either already required or reflected existing Indian policy. India’s promise to improve its export control laws was already required by UN Security Council Resolution 1540; India’s promise to “work toward” a cut off of fissile material production for weapons was made long before the deal; India’s decision to voluntarily refrain from testing also preceded the agreement; so did India’s decision not to export enrichment or reprocessing technology.

Myth #4: Nuclear cooperation will make India a reliable U.S. ally.

Fact: India’s sovereign interests are likely to conflict with those of the United States. India, for example, cooperates militarily with Iran and has been training Iran’s navy. India is dependent on Iranian oil, and is discussing a natural gas pipeline from Iran. Although India grudgingly voted for U.N. efforts to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, Indian politicians have been careful to emphasize that India’s friendship with Iran will continue. It is unrealistic to expect that India, the creator of the Non-Aligned Movement, will ever do America’s bidding internationally.

Myth #5: The deal will build up India as a bulwark against China.

Fact: The notion that India might assist the United States diplomatically or militarily in some future conflict with China is unrealistic. This “counterweight” theory reminds one of the argument made by the first Bush administration in the 1980’s, when it contended that the United States should export sensitive dual-use equipment to Saddam Hussein in order to build up Iraq as a counterweight to Iran. U.S. pilots were later killed in Iraq trying to bomb things that U.S. companies had provided. History shows that such predictions can be dangerously wrong. India shares a border with China, is keen to have good relations with China, and does have good relations with China. The two countries have just signed a new memorandum of understanding on military cooperation. India will not sour such relations simply from a vague desire to please the United States.

Myth #6: India’s strategic position entitles it to unique treatment.

Fact: Of the three countries that have refused to sign the NPT – India, Israel and Pakistan – India is the least important strategically to the United States. Pakistan is essential to ongoing U.S. military and political efforts in Afghanistan and to the U.S. campaign against Al Qaeda. Pakistan is also a leading power in the Muslim world, a world with which the United States needs better relations. Israel has always been a close U.S. ally, and is located in a region of critical importance to U.S. foreign policy interests. In any competition for strategic favor from the United States, India finishes a distant third.

Myth #7: It is possible to loosen export controls for India without doing the same for Iran and other countries pursuing the bomb.

Fact: Weakening export controls for India will automatically weaken them for Iran, Pakistan, and even terrorist groups who might want to buy the means to make mass destruction weapons. Export controls today depend on groups of supplier countries that have agreed among themselves not to export dangerous technologies. The principle is mutual restraint. If, however, the United States drops export controls to help its friend India, Russia will drop controls to help its friend Iran, and China will drop controls to help its friend Pakistan. That is the way international controls work. India, like Iran, has decided to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of peaceful nuclear cooperation. From this standpoint, the two countries are indistinguishable. It will be impossible to convince Russia to refrain from supplying Iran, or China from supplying Pakistan, with the same technologies that the United States wants to sell India. U.S. legitimization of India’s nuclear weapon program will also make it harder to convince Russia and China to brand Iran as an outlaw in the U.N. Security Council.

Myth #8: U.S. nuclear exports will not help India make bombs.

Fact: Such exports will help India make bombs. India now needs more uranium than it can produce. This means that India must choose between using its own uranium to make nuclear power or nuclear weapons. Allowing India to fuel its power reactors with imported uranium will free India’s domestic production for reactors that make bombs, thus increasing India’s nuclear arsenal. In addition, without being able to inspect all of India’s reactors, it will be impossible to tell whether a U.S. export supposedly intended for peaceful purposes has been diverted to bomb making. Nuclear exports are inherently capable of military as well as civilian applications.

Myth #9: Peaceful space cooperation will not help India’s nuclear missile program.

Fact: The administration’s plan to help India develop its space launch capability will at the same time help it build long-range strategic missiles. In fact, this is already happening. As part of the Strategic Partnership umbrella announced with India, the U.S. Commerce Department has already removed export restrictions on three subsidiaries of the Indian Space Research Organization, which are all active in Indian missile development. India, indeed, is the first country to develop a long-range nuclear missile from a civilian space launch program.

Myth #10: India has an exemplary nonproliferation record and is a reliable trading partner.

Fact: India has a long record of developing both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles under the guise of peaceful nuclear and space cooperation. India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974 by diverting plutonium made with nuclear imports from the United States and Canada that were supplied for peaceful purposes. In the 1980’s, India had a deliberate policy of defeating international controls by smuggling heavy water from the USSR, China and Norway, which allowed India to use its reactors to make plutonium for bombs. In a similar fashion, India built its largest nuclear-capable missile, the Agni, by importing from NASA the design of an American space launcher, again for ostensibly peaceful purposes. Even today, Indian missile and nuclear sites continue to import sensitive American equipment in violation of U.S. law.

Myth #11: India needs more nuclear power to assure its energy future.

Fact: Nuclear power has been virtually insignificant in India’s energy mix in the past, and will be no more important in the future. India has been generating electricity with nuclear reactors for more than 40 years. Yet, reactors supply only 2% to 3% of its electricity today. India has not built more reactors because they have not turned out to be as safe, or as clean, or – most important – as economical as originally thought. Even if India were to achieve a 50% increase in nuclear power generation (which is unlikely) such a step would only increase India’s overall electricity output by one percent at most, and would only increase India’s overall energy output by a fraction of one percent. That is not a significant increase in the energy available to India and would not decrease India’s demand for oil and gas.

Myth #12: The deal will result in more U.S. reactor sales.

Fact: It is unlikely that the United States will receive reactor orders from India. India is building a string of domestic reactors that are cheaper to construct than American imports would be, and there are easier places to buy imported reactors. Russia already has a foothold in India’s reactor market, and will charge less money and attach fewer conditions than will U.S. sellers. France and Canada will also enter the competition. The chance that the United States will defeat these competitors is slim. The precedent is the U.S. experience with China in the 1980’s. At the time when U.S. nuclear cooperation with China was being debated, American vendors were citing the large number of reactors that China would probably buy from the United States. After the deal was signed, China bought exactly no American reactors. Instead, the U.S. agreement increased the competition and drove down the price for the Chinese buyers. That was good for China, but did nothing for the United States. The same is likely to happen with India.

Myth #13: The deal is needed to build better relations with India.

Fact: There are better ways to improve relations with India than engaging in nuclear trade. The United States can help India generate electricity without expanding India’s wasteful and inefficient nuclear infrastructure, which also makes bombs. Supporting India’s reactors only reinforces the perceived prestige of nuclear technology for developing countries, a notion that the United States is trying to discourage. The United States can also support India’s space effort without boosting India’s missile work. The United States could offer to launch Indian satellites and to share satellite observation data with India analysts. The reality is that trade, military cooperation, scientific exchange and political consultation can all grow vigorously without a nuclear deal.

Myth #14: The deal is not primarily about making money; it is about creating a new U.S. strategic relationship in south Asia.

Fact: The deal is primarily about making money. The main effect of the deal will be to pardon India – to remove it as a violator of international norms. After such a change in status, there will be no impediment to U.S. arms sales. This is where the real money is, not in nuclear reactors. U.S. exporters have mentioned selling as much as $1.4 billion worth of Boeing airliners, hundreds of F-16 or F/A-18 fighter jets, as well as maritime surveillance planes, advanced radar, helicopters, missile defense and other equipment. The Russian press has even complained that the nuclear deal is a ploy to squeeze Russia out of the Indian arms market.

Myth #15: The deal is consistent with U.S. efforts to fight terrorism.

Fact: The deal undermines America’s ability to fight terrorism. By favoring India over Pakistan, the deal undercuts the Pakistani government’s position at home. At best, the deal is a blow to General Musharraf’s prestige, and at worst a public humiliation. Without the aid of General Musharraf, the United States will have a much harder time accomplishing its goals in Afghanistan and succeeding in its efforts to defeat al Qaeda. There is no benefit to U.S. security coming from India under the deal that will offset these disadvantages.

Myth #16: This is a “good deal for the United States.”

Fact: India has received a giant benefit – the American seal of approval for India’s nuclear weapon program – in exchange for virtually nothing. There is not a single “trophy” in the deal – nothing the United States can credibly hang on the wall as an achievement. The deal does not improve India’s proliferation status, or limit its bomb-making potential, or make it a reliable ally, or make it a regional counterweight, or guarantee a reactor sale. For the United States there are mainly costs and few or no advantages.

Myth #17: Congress needs to act now so that the deal can move forward.

Fact: Congress need take no action until a formal agreement for nuclear cooperation has been negotiated with India, and until the International Atomic Energy Agency has agreed with India upon suitable inspection arrangements, and until the Nuclear Suppliers Group – the consortium of countries that supply nuclear technology – has decided whether to change its rules to accommodate the deal. The best, and in fact the only, way for Congress to learn the details of what India will actually do, or promise to do, under the deal is to wait until all these steps are taken. Once an agreement is made and presented for consideration, Congress can add any conditions that seem warranted. Congress has never approved an agreement for cooperation without seeing the actual agreement. There is no reason to start now.