The Magazine

The India Syndrome

U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy melts down.

Aug 1, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 43 • By HENRY SOKOLSKI
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No one seems to be asking the basic question of whether doing all this damage to the nuclear nonproliferation regime is the best way to tackle India's energy woes. The fact is, about half of India's energy now comes from the burning of cow dung and twigs. The best way to fix this--in the name of sanitation and global warming--is to go with what's most economical. Given the location and the consumers involved, that means bypassing the difficult, costly task of hooking them all up to India's incomplete electrical grid and instead deploying small, decentralized energy systems (e.g., windmills, small hydro, and biomass). The next biggest chunk of India's energy consumption, roughly a third, consists of oil used to power cars and trucks--vehicles that are unlikely to tap into electricity-generated fuel for decades.

That brings us to electricity, about 20 percent of the energy India consumes. An overwhelming proportion of this--60 to 80 percent--comes from the burning of coal. Coal's dominance in India is unlikely to change soon. (India sits on the world's third largest reserve.) As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, the quickest way for India to get more and cleaner electricity is for it to mine, transport, and burn coal more cleanly.

And what about nuclear power? It provides less than 3 percent of the electricity India consumes. Why is the nuclear contribution so small? It is hobbled by government design. The Indian government walled off its civilian nuclear program from private or local ownership, as well as from foreign investment and management. As a result, India's civilian nuclear program is exceedingly expensive, egregiously mismanaged, and technically overambitious. None of this--no matter how much help the program gets from the outside--is likely to change anytime soon.

The realist rejoinder to these points is that, however slight the economic merits of nuclear aid to New Delhi might be, New Delhi wants the help, so we should give it. If we want to keep India from buying energy from Iran, and have it counterbalance China, nuclear aid, they argue, is simply the price of doing business.

This sounds plausible, except for one thing: The Indians are quite clear that they are not about to cooperate. Good relations with Iran are critical for India to gain access to affordable natural gas and to fend off terrorists from Afghanistan. China is a country India wants to gain investment from, not someone it wants to ruffle, least of all by acting as Washington's geopolitical pawn. There surely is no Indian desire to ramp up nuclear or military production to match Beijing weapon-for-weapon.

This suggests that while it may make sense to help India grow its economy, using New Delhi as a strategic fix for a rising China is hardly in the cards. Indeed, until India sees that it is in its interest to align itself firmly with the United States, all that Washington will get from New Delhi is a list of goodies that it wants as it plays the role of the newest pretty girl on the block.

The irony in all of this is that one of the reasons India sought relief from the current set of nuclear rules is that they are actually working. Specifically, the French, who run most of the uranium mines in Africa, have been blocking sales of fresh uranium to non-NPT states like India. The Russians, in a fit of law-abidingness, recently told New Delhi they could no longer supply it with nuclear fuel for its two light water reactors at Tarapur. The net result has been that India has had to run its reactors less to save fuel. That the U.S. offer to India has undercut the French and Russians' adherence to the rules is more than a bit awkward.

WHAT THEN SHOULD WE DO? First, recognize that with presidential initiatives of this sort, taking it all back isn't really much of a political option. Still, the United States can and must assure the world that it will in no way weaken existing nuclear restraints in creating the legal nuclear easements it promised India. Congress and the administration, at the very least, must insist that all previous legal nonproliferation understandings regarding U.S. nuclear transfers to India will continue to be upheld. U.S. prior consent, for example, must continue to be required, as it always has, before any U.S.-origin spent fuel can be reprocessed.