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Sameer Ali Khan

India’s G-20 Sherpa, Amitabh Kant, has called for unfettered access to U.S. nuclear technology, to pursue Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) by granting general authorisation to India. Previously, at the 2021 COP26 meeting in Glasgow, India’s then G-20 Sherpa, Piyush Goyal, had underlined that India’s climate and development goals were tied to its entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It is important to recall that India signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. in 2006 and received an exceptional waiver from the NSG in 2008. These two developments paved way for Indian access to international civil nuclear cooperation which was restricted, albeit not completely, following its nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998. Since 2008, India, supported by the United States, has pursued membership of the NSG to secure a seat at its rules-making table.

Indian access to civil nuclear technology is restricted by its anomalous domestic nuclear liability laws and vertical proliferation potential rather than the pending membership of the Group. Despite being a party to the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC), Indian domestic liability laws hold the suppliers liable along with the operator. Under CSC, only operators are held liable.

As Indian pursuit of NSG membership fails to materialize, it is now demanding general authorisation status from the U.S. Under the Code of Federal Regulations, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) maintains a list of ‘generally authorised destinations.’ This list includes the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and 47 countries that the U.S. has signed civil nuclear cooperation agreements with. All of these states, unlike India, are members of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and implement full scope IAEA safeguards except for the United Kingdom and France, the two nuclear weapon states recognised under the NPT. Countries in this list enjoy an easier access to U.S. nuclear market and face lesser bureaucratic snags.

While there are no indications of the U.S. considering such an action, and the U.S. DOE had previously declined such requests in 2015, it is important to evaluate how the existing Indo-U.S. agreement and NSG waiver have played out. Once the Indo-U.S. bilateral agreement was negotiated, it was argued that it will serve Washington’s economic, non-proliferation, and strategic objectives. Hence, it is important to take cognizance of how earlier arrangements have fared in these three domains.

When it comes to economic incentives, it was projected that the deal would allow U.S. companies to participate in a purported USD 150 billion nuclear sector in India. Also, India committed to purchasing 10,000MW of American reactors. Following the NSG waiver and bilateral agreements, India has imported nuclear fuel from Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, and Russia. Similarly, Russia and France are constructing Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs) in India. But so far, none of the U.S. companies have been able to do business with India because of the latter’s peculiar domestic laws on nuclear liability. Since U.S. companies do not share state backing like the Russian and French, they are wary of entering the Indian nuclear market. As of February 2023, the two sides were still grappling with the liability issue.

On the non-proliferation front, it was believed that the prerequisite separation plan would clearly classify India’s nuclear programme into civilian and military categories, with a view to restricting vertical proliferation. However, India was able to retain a third oxymoronic category of civilian unsafeguarded nuclear facilities. Outside the IAEA safeguards, these are better considered as military nuclear facilities. Experts believe that the India-IAEA safeguards arrangement is not fit for purpose and potentially facilitates expansion of the country’s military nuclear programme.

A strategic incentive for the Indo-US agreement and NSG waiver was to initiate a rapprochement with India and prop it up as a counterweight to China. This is the only domain that has seen some progress. Other than signing the foundational agreements and including India in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), the U.S. has now emerged as a major arms supplier to that country, accounting for 11% of its arms imports. While arming India like this might not help the U.S. contain Beijing given that experts point out that ‘India talks China but acts Pakistan.’ Therefore, even the so-called strategic interests concerning China will have a direct bearing on South Asia’s stability as India is likely to build and use this military asymmetry to its advantage against Pakistan.

Therefore, before facilitating further Indian access to U.S. nuclear technology, it is important to objectively review the outcomes of what were considered landmark agreements in furthering Washington’s interests. So far, the latter’s nuclear industry has not benefited economically from these agreements and the anticipated non-proliferation gains remain elusive. Even on the strategic front, potential gains may be coming at the cost of stability in South Asia as experts remain skeptical over the degree of role that India may be willing to play vis-à-vis China.

Sameer Ali Khan is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan.