India's nuclear scientists, national heroes since the successful testing of nuclear weapons eight years ago, have taken the extraordinary step of waging a public campaign against the planned agreement.
Dr. Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, has led the charge, giving a full-page interview to The Indian Express which says bluntly that the American demand that India's new fast-breeder nuclear reactors be placed under international supervision "is not in our strategic interest."
"This would amount to getting shackled," Kakodkar said.
At a public meeting in Delhi Thursday at the Institute of Defense Studies, former chairman of India's atomic Energy Regulation Bureau Gopala Krishnan alleged "a deliberate effort by the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of External affairs to browbeat the Department of Atomic Energy" into accepting the U.S. deal.
"Call it pride or whatever, the scientific community will fight to the last to keep the (nuclear) program out of the International Atomic Energy Authority safeguards," he added.
The plan began last July with the best of intentions on both sides. The Bush administration wanted to remove the sanctions against India's nuclear program that had begun when India first tested a nuclear blast in 1974, and were then intensified after India's series of nuclear tests in 1998. The Indians, keen to develop civilian nuclear power plants to tackle their energy shortage, wanted the sanctions dropped so that could legally obtain nuclear fuels and civilian nuclear power technologies from other countries.
This meant finding a way to lift the sanctions and to start technical cooperation in ways that met U.S. anti-proliferation legislation, and also kept within the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Although India is not a signatory of the Treaty, the United States (along with other members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group like France, Britain, Russia and Canada) is bound by its limitations on proving nuclear technology to countries that are not subject to the controls of the International Atomic Energy Authority. The U.S. position is also influenced by the need to strengthen the international non-proliferation regime as it seeks to block he nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.
To meet these legal constraints, and also to meet concerns raised in congress and by the anti-proliferation lobby, the Bush administration has proposed that India provide two lists. The first would be the civilian list of reactors and research facilities that are not related to the nuclear weapons program, and would henceforth come under the IAEA system. The second would be a much shorter list of military facilities which would remain outside the IAEA.
U.S. officials insist that the separation of these two lists should be "credible, transparent and defensible," and that the vast bulk of India's nuclear facilities should be placed on the civilian list, including the new fast breeder reactors
"Both from the point of view of maintaining long-term energy security, and for maintaining the minimum credible deterrent, the Fast Breeder program just cannot be put on the civilian list," Dr. Kakodkar maintains.
The U.S. negotiators are also concerned over the even newer 'Kamini' reactor which is now in operation and which amounts to a unique Indian breakthrough in nuclear technology. It uses Uranium 233 fuel that has been derived from irradiated thorium fuel. India has very limited supplies of uranium, and the sanctions make it difficult to acquire more.
But India has vast supplies of thorium, and the new thorium technology promises to make India independent of imported nuclear fuels forever. Indeed, Dr. A. N. Prasad, former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, claims that "a staggering 530,000 megawatts of electricity can be generated for 300 years out of the assessed thorium reserves in the country."
"Thorium has to play the key central in our long-term energy security," Dr. Prasad now argues in a long essay in the latest issue of 'Outlook,' India's most prestigious current affairs weekly. As a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, Prasad's decision to public with his concerns over the U.S. agreement points to the seriousness of the revolt by India's scientific establishment.
"Decisions taken now are irreversible in practice," Prasad warns. "It is suicidal to tie ourselves up prematurely and suffer in the future. In this connection we should not get unduly pressured to take vital decisions before the visit of U.S. President George Bush."
The scientists' revolt has given fuel to the political opposition to the deal from left-wing parties on whom Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government depends, and also to high-ranking Indian security officials who fear the deal would prevent the enlargement of India's nuclear weapons arsenal in the future, and over time, would lead to the degradation of its existing stockpile of some 70 warheads.
One confidential memorandum by a senior security official on the nuclear cooperation agreement now circulating within the Indian government says it means "India goes into a lose-lose situation."
The memorandum, which has been seen by UPI, claims that the U.S. approach now seeks to "lock India's indigenous nuclear program under the IAEA; to degrade India's efforts toward achieving minimum deterrent capabilities; and to make India's nuclear energy U.S.-dependent."
The strength of the opposition to the deal within the Indian establishment is such that some extraordinary failure of communication must have taken place to leave the Bush administration apparently unaware that the president's trip was heading into trouble. Earlier this week, Under-Secretary of State Nicholas Burns was claiming that the deal was "90 percent complete."
This remark "left us gaping in disbelief," one top-ranking Indian security official told UPI Thursday, on condition of anonymity.
By Wednesday, when President Bush told the Asia Society "it is not an easy decision for India to make," Washington finally seemed to have woken up to the steepness of the mountain that was still to be climbed if the nuclear cooperation agreement was to be saved. More important than that, Washington's hopes of a lasting strategic partnership with India are now also at stake. If this goes wrong, it could be quite a while before an American president gets to see the Taj Mahal again.