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Krepon: U.S.-India Nuclear Agreement Weakens Nonproliferation Efforts

Interviewee: Michael Krepon, Co-founder, The Henry L. Stimson Center
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
September 17, 2008

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Michael Krepon, a well-known expert on South Asia and nuclear nonproliferation, says that the U.S.-India nuclear agreement which President Bush has sent to Congress for approval is likely to weaken efforts at strengthening nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. He says that Congress, which originally in the Hyde Act, had demanded tough steps to ensure India did not resume nuclear testing, will likely approve the agreement on the grounds it will improve relations with India and increase American jobs. Krepon says he doubts that American industry will gain much from the accord.

The U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear agreement—which will allow the United States to provide nuclear equipment and expertise for the Indians' civilian nuclear industry but had been barred previously because India had not signed the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty—is now before the Congress, and the Democratic leaders in both houses seem willing and eager to take it up. You have been on the record for some time as being opposed to this agreement. Can you summarize what your main reasons against it are?

India needs to be brought into the global nonproliferation system even if it can't join the nonproliferation treaty. The question has always been how to get India in without undermining the rest of the system. It also tilts the playing field in the direction of a resumption of Indian nuclear tests.

India is operating under a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear tests; why would this agreement push it toward more nuclear tests?

India's leaders have not gone beyond a voluntary statement saying they have no plans to test, for very good reasons, at least in their view. India has tested an advanced nuclear design only once, and it's likely to need to test it again. And for a two-stage warhead that can be carried long distances atop its ballistic missiles, it's very hard for any country, no matter how advanced, to master and certify designs for two-stage hydrogen weapons, with just a single test. India's lone test in 1998 to do this may not have been completely successful. So what the Congress did in passing the Hyde Act was to try and clarify penalties in the event of a resumption of Indian testing. Congress understood that to change the terms of nuclear commerce for India's benefit, only to have India test again, would be very bad news for the global nonproliferation system. What the Bush administration subsequently did in its dealings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which regulates nuclear commerce, was to undermine the Congress's clear legislative intent and to soften any blows that might result if India decides to test again, which means that a decision to resume testing by India would make the IAEA and the NSG accomplices to the fact, which would be very, very bad.

I thought the administration had promised Congress that if India tested again it would stop the nuclear cooperation immediately.


Well, not immediately, but the Bush administration agreed to the Congress's insistence that there be clear penalties in the event of a resumption of Indian nuclear testing. But at the same time, the Bush administration worked with the IAEA to include language in its agreement affirming fuel supplies to India that would be unemcumbered and unimpeded. And at the same time, the Bush administration worked with the NSG to ensure that there would not be an automatic cutoff in the event of a resumption of Indian nuclear testing. Instead, the Bush administration convinced the NSG only to convene to discuss what to do in the event of a resumption of Indian nuclear testing. The government of India has been very clear in saying that the suspension of fuel supplies at its power plants would be grounds for removing Indian facilities from the IAEA safeguards agreement. What this means is, quite simply, that in the event of a resumption of Indian testing, French and Russian suppliers of fuel will argue very strenuously that fuel supplies should continue because otherwise safeguards will be removed—and there will be no consensus in the NSG. So the clear legislative intent of the Congress has been subverted by the Bush administration's dealings with both the IAEA and the NSG.

You keep talking about the Bush administration, but don't the Democratic leaders support this just as much? Senator Joseph Biden, Barack Obama's running mate, who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is very outspoken for it.

The administration is very correct in assuming that the Congress would hate to vote against business opportunities in India and improve relations with India, even if in the field of nuclear commerce, profits and jobs would go elsewhere, primarily to Russia and France.

Well, isn't General Electric a big supplier of nuclear components?

General Electric is now the only U.S.-owned company that makes nuclear power plants. Westinghouse also has a division that makes nuclear power plants, but it's now owned by Toshiba. General Electric would be constrained from building power plants in India unless the Indian government passes liability waivers to cover the huge expense of a nuclear accident, and this is not easy for the government of India to do because of the terrible industrial accident in the city of Bhopal in India in 1984, at a Union Carbide insecticide plant, in which perhaps 20,000 Indians died. So it's going to be very rough in Indian domestic politics to give U.S. companies waivers against accidents. French companies and Russian companies aren't going to worry about this.

Let me just skip a few miles away and talk about Pakistan. Pakistan, of course, has a nuclear program and is accused of helping other countries get nuclear weapons programs through the help of A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program. There were reports in the Pakistan press a few weeks ago that President Asif Ali Zardari, the new president of Pakistan, would be going to China to seek a similar agreement to match the U.S.-India one, but that trip seems to have been put off. I wonder if the Chinese don't want to get into the middle of this.


Well, the Chinese take an indirect approach with India and vice versa. Neither country directly opposes the other's nuclear ambitions. China is probably the most likely supplier of nuclear power plants in Pakistan if Pakistan gets a similar exemption. I think there will still be great reluctance on the part of nuclear suppliers to treat Pakistan on the same footing as India. Another interesting question is whether or not the government of Israel will seek exemptions from the typical rules of nuclear commerce, not necessarily for power plants, but perhaps for desalinization plants, that's another possibility. I think the ramifications of an Israeli attempt to get exemptions from nuclear controls are worth considering.

I haven't seen any comments from the Israelis on this.

I think Israel is waiting in the wings. Nobody likes to be an outlier from the global system designed to clarify responsible international behavior relating to proliferation, so I'm keeping my eyes on Israel.

And you say Pakistan probably could not get a waiver from the nuclear suppliers' group because of the activities of A.Q. Khan, yes?


There are still too many unanswered questions about Pakistan's nuclear history, and there are still too many concerns about where Pakistan is going.

And is there any connection between this U.S.-India agreement and the alternative Bush administration's heated opposition to Iran's nuclear program?


When it comes to proliferation, the hip bone is always connected to the thigh bone. As much as administrations try to distinguish between cases, there are connectivities, and we can count on Iran and its benefactors to try to muddy these waters.

Coming back again to the U.S.-India agreement, do you sense that Congress is going to approve it?


I think that Congress will approve the deal and reaffirm the conditions that it has already set to try to control downside risks relating to proliferation, but considerable damage has already been done in undermining legislative intent in the IAEA and the NSG, so Congress is now in between a rock and a hard place. The Bush administration did not follow through as the Congress had wanted but I don't see Congress walking away from the deal. A lot of damage has already been done.

I was actually surprised that the Democratic leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the House and Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Senate, were so upfront about trying to push it through. I would have thought they'd try to make some politics out of this, but I guess the politics in this case is in helping American industry.


Well, the politics is helping American industry even if jobs and profits go elsewhere, and the politics certainly run in the direction of staying on the right side of the Indian-American community. Let me remind you that the U.S.-India Business Council, when it was pushing hard for this deal, claimed that there would be 27,000 new jobs created annually in the nuclear industry in the United States, which is pure fantasy. There's only one U.S.-owned company that builds power plants, and it's likely to be shut out of the Indian market unless the government of India passes liability waivers in the event of nuclear accidents.

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