11:00 am EST - 12:30 pm EST

Past Event

The Future of Reducing Nuclear Dangers: How Can India and the United States Collaborate?

Thursday, January 05, 2012

11:00 am - 12:30 pm EST

The Brookings Institution
St. Louis Room

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

Recognizing the need for India to participate more fully in the international non-proliferation system, in late 2009 the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the South Asia Program at CSIS created a Working Group on an Expanded Nonproliferation System to discuss three key issues: nuclear security, nuclear disarmament, and the possibilities for U.S.-India cooperation.

In its final report (accessible on the NTI website), the group recommended that India, while unable to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), could work together with the United States to bring India into the export control groups affiliated with the non-proliferation system.

This private discussion held at the Brookings Institution with American and Indian experts, including some of the working group’s members, began where the report ended – with a look at the structure of international efforts to reduce nuclear danger.

Stephen P. Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and moderator of the session, introduced the discussion by mentioning three paradoxes created by the nuclearization of South Asia:

Nuclear weapons cannot realistically be used, but to be an effective deterrent a state must be prepared to use them at any time, especially during crises.

Nuclear weapons are a symbol of national power and prestige, but new nuclear weapons states are reluctant to assume the responsibility and leadership of managing the global nuclear order.

Nuclear weapons and energy have an immense potential for further development, expansion and sophistication, but that also brings concerns about their safety, security and proliferation.

Teresita C. Schaffer, nonresident senior fellow at Brookings and convener of the working group, commented on the conclusions of the report and made the following five observations:

While the NPT is central to Americans, it’s seen as an obstacle by Indians. One path to progress lies in using and also expanding the non-NPT institutional frameworks, including export control groups and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). They provide a means of bringing all willing and responsible nuclear weapons states into a forum on global disarmament. This is a prerequisite for the disarmament progress the NPT itself envisages, and should therefore be an early subject of discussion between India and the United States.

Nuclear security should be “low-hanging fruit.” However, it has been difficult to work on in practice. The Japanese nuclear disaster at Fukushima has reinforced this concern, and led to a new backlash against nuclear power in Indian politics. The next nuclear summit in Seoul, preceded later this month by a Sherpa meeting in Delhi may offer an opportunity to address this difficult issue.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is going nowhere at present. India will not take it seriously unless the U.S. ratifies it, which is improbable in the current political context. But even if the U.S., India and Pakistan ratified the treaty, it cannot come into effect without the signature of North Korea. This means that it will not turn into a legally binding commitment, and that its main utility lies in its normative value. While Americans and many of the other NPT members have tried to use legally binding regimes to strengthen their security, other countries, including India, are less enthusiastic. This suggests that, at least at a minimum, the world needs to make more effective use of normative statements, since the “last mile” of legal commitments may turn out to be hard to traverse.

The FMCT may be more achievable provided it can be moved to a forum in which no single country can block its progress. Given its higher degree of technicality, including the proposal to control raw materials for production of nuclear weapons, it is less replaceable by a normative statement, but could assume greater importance than the CTBT.

India remains squeamish about multilateral norm-setting: it is uncomfortable with the private character of the World Institute for Nuclear Security and the limited membership of Proliferation Security Initiative, preferring the universal membership of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), even while not being particularly keen to make it a more muscular organization. This is a perspective Americans can understand. Multilateral rules have at times been very controversial in the U.S., where there is strong political resistance to subjecting to international dispute settlements. But, in order to reduce nuclear threats, how may both countries work together to overcome this discomfort?

Joan Rohlfing, president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and co-convener of the working group, focused her remarks on the following five issues:

The current system of nuclear governance and security is dominated by voluntary arrangements and predicated on the outmoded belief that individual state decisions and structures can provide sufficient security for dangerous nuclear materials. This idea of individual states’ nuclear “sovereignty” is, however, out of step with contemporary needs and it is therefore urgent to promote a shift in our mindsets and in our practices towards recognizing that with shared interests, there must be shared responsibilities and a much greater degree of collaboration, transparency and accountability.

There is a tension between states’ perceptions of sovereignty over all things nuclear and the increasingly urgent challenge to achieve nuclear security collaboratively. This can be traced to a set of three “international interests,” shared by all states, including:

  • an interest that the use of nuclear power does not lead to further weapons proliferation;
  • an interest that nuclear energy does not endanger human health or the environment;
  • and an interest to foster the ability to collectively develop the potential of nuclear energy in order to mitigate climate change.
    NTI Counselor John Carlson should be credited for his excellent work on defining international nuclear interests, and especially the need to develop a stronger international role in nuclear governance.

International interests in nuclear security are dependent upon the continued public and political confidence in nuclear energy, which depends upon how well states do on nuclear safety and security. As the nuclear disasters of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima show, an accident or catastrophe in any one place in the world can have a profound impact on how the public and governments assess nuclear risks, and their willingness to continue to pursue it.

NTI has been dealing closely with these challenges, most recently by developing a nuclear materials security index, assessing on a state-by-state basis the security conditions within a given state. One of the main findings is that there is no consensus view on what things a state should do to have strong nuclear materials security, and that most states tend to look narrowly only at the physical protection measures in place at a particular facility.

India must play a greater role, working with other nuclear powers on transparency, global best practices, peer reviews, and regional cooperation. These are crucial issues on which Indian contributions have so far been minimal and insufficient.

P.R. Chari, visiting professor at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (New Delhi) and member of the working group, forwarded the following observations:

The promise of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal has not been realized, as India remains out of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Australia Group and Wassenaar Arrangement. 2011 saw more contention than cooperation, especially on enrichment and reprocessing technologies, India’s Civil Nuclear Liability Act, and the reservations expressed by several NSG members regarding nuclear cooperation with India unless it joins the NPT.

On a positive note, Australia has finally decided to supply uranium to India, and the Indo-U.S. dialogue continues on strategic and nuclear issues, which is important for mutual understanding and for greater American appreciation of the constraints on nuclear issues imposed by India’s democratic coalition politics and civil society.

Specifically, on nuclear arms control and non-proliferation, three assertions are possible:

  • There will be no progress on CTBT unless the United States ratifies it. India will not go beyond its present moratorium and the jury is still out on whether more tests are needed to establish its credible nuclear triad.
  • With growing nuclear arsenals in China and Pakistan, India is unlikely to halt fissile material production until the FMCT is negotiated and finalized. It is egregious that one nation out of 65 has stalled negotiations for over a decade, and there is therefore a need to shift the forum for negotiations to the United Nations (UN).
  • Progress on the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) is more hopeful, as India has become pro-active regarding maritime security, policing of sea-lanes, and anti-piracy. More dialogue is needed between both countries to discuss the important legal and operational issues involved: How does the PSI fit within the UN’s legal framework? Could India interdict Chinese ships carrying contraband, and would the U.S. support it?

After the Fukushima accident, nuclear safety and security have gained salience and led to great public alarm about nuclear energy. Four specific questions arise:

  • How to regain public confidence that nuclear energy is safe?
  • How to establish a truly independent regulatory authority with domain knowledge?
  • What should be the realistic place of nuclear energy in the total energy mix?
  • How to ensure the safety of radioactive materials in industry, research and medical facilities?

The future U.S.-India dialogue will have to address the following questions:

  • Has the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal weakened the NSG? During the negotiations, China had hinted at the possibility of replicating the exception between China and Pakistan without prior approval of IAEA and NSG. Should NSG rules be modified or only waived on a case-by-case basis.
  • How to strengthen the IAEA by emphasizing its promotional, apart from its regulatory functions? The IAEA remains the best forum to synergize approaches to nuclear safety and security, for example on transportation of nuclear materials and nuclear forensics.
  • How can the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons be strengthened? This will improve the atmospherics for proceeding further towards nuclear disarmament.
  • The logical forum for discussing these and other issues, especially nuclear disarmament, would be the Indo-US strategic dialogue, which does not necessarily require an agreement to be reached, but could generate new ideas that could then be pursued in multilateral forums like the First Committee on Disarmament at the UN, or the forthcoming Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul.

The discussion centered on the following three issue-areas:

1. Why is it so difficult for the U.S. and India to cooperate on nuclear issues?

  • For one participant, a political breakthrough is needed on the Indian side before a significant technical dialogue can take place. Even in its informal setting, the working group faced difficulties, so one can imagine the obstacles faced in the official dialogue.
  • Another reason forwarded was the historical baggage, or “trust deficit,” including a lingering Indian suspicion and doubts about U.S. intentions.
  • One participant underlined the difficulty in changing India’s mindset (often stimulated by the United States) where nuclear technology continues to be seen as a “miracle solution to all problems, from security to energy.” What are the incentives necessary to foster a cognitive change that also addresses nuclear energy/weapons as “a potential problem, a risky and dangerous enterprise?” How can we expect heretofore unaccountable constituencies of bureaucrats and scientist to accept international inspections?
  • Another participant questioned the logic and feasibility of focusing the Indo-U.S. dialogue on the nuclear domain, “the most sovereignist issue area,” to build normative cooperation and consensus between both countries, arguing that it would make more sense to focus first on “lower security” issue-areas.
  • One participant noted that India must be given time to complete a long and complex process, referring to the parallel examples of domestic change in Russia and the United States.

2. Lack of independent domain expertise and regulatory authority in India.

  • One participant observed that the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is situated “in a gray area,” functioning directly under the Prime Minister, but wary in taking major decisions, and being largely unaccountable.
  • The necessity for a truly independent regulatory authority in India was stressed repeatedly. “You can’t have an organization [Atomic Energy Commission] that is only responsible to itself, and only occasionally in contact with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Finance for its budgetary requirements,” one participated noted. However, any change in the regulatory authority is challenged by the lack of domain knowledge outside the existing establishment.
  • Two other participants observed that the current “excessive autonomy” enjoyed by the DAE is worrisome, reflecting a “crisis-driven” and reactionary approach. The Atomic Energy Commission, for example, recently prepared a review on nuclear safety, but it is questionable whether it did so only to assuage public apprehensions and protests following the Fukushima incident.

3. What are the avenues for future cooperation between the United States and India?

  • One participant questioned whether there was any significant difference in Indian and American strategies to get India on board of the four institutional frameworks of the nuclear regime (Secretary Clinton recently mentioned a “phased” and Minister Krishna a “tandem” approach). According to another participant, the difference arises between a “sequenced” (United States) and a “packaged” (India) negotiation strategy.
  • Another participant stressed that even while not expecting a “big bang breakthrough” India wants to see “demonstrable progress on all four fronts.” The Strategic Security Dialogue between India’s Foreign Secretary and U.S. Undersecretary Tauscher are in progress, meeting every six months. Both sides have been actively reaching out to other members of the NSG. India is aware that nuclear issues are not solely in the domestic domain, safety and security being “national responsibilities with international ramifications,” allowing for cooperation “with the United States and others.”
  • One participant noted a certain inertia to have overcome India in 2011, which now seems less enthusiastic, for example in regard to joining the Australia Group.
  • One specific issue discussed was progress on the Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership, a cooperative initiative announced by the Indian Prime Minister in the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit. According to one participant, land was acquired in Haryana, in the capital’s outskirts, two courses had been held so far, and the Center is expected to become fully operational in 2-3 years. Another participant noted the “glacial progress,” with only one meeting being held since the signing of the MoU, and that while “focusing on the hardware,” India was ignoring cooperation on setting up the training and organizational structures.
  • One participant noted that whatever be the appropriate balance between national and international responsibilities in the various nuclear regimes, the role of the IAEA must be strengthened, as states cannot rely only on voluntary cooperative impulses. This should be an area of fundamental agreement between India and the United States.
  • Finally, another participant observed the possibility of extending the working group’s focus to the areas of doctrinal issues, underdevelopment or mismanagement, in particular how states should size and secure their nuclear weapon arsenals or atomic reactors. This assumes importance with the number of private actors increasing.