Nuclear nonproliferation, like human rights, may be downgraded by the Reagan administration. But a warning recently from a senior Indian official should force the new administration to give nuclear issues a higher priority.
Vinay Mechonie, an official at India's Atomic Energy Commission, suggested to visiting American reporters that India might reprocess spent fuel derived from low-enriched uranium which the United States has been supplying to the Tarapur power station near Bombay under a 1963 bilateral agreement.
The US-Indian supply agreement calls for "joint determination" before the Tarapur spent fuel can be reprocessed. US officials consider this an important control because, through reprocessing, India can obtain plutonium to make nuclear weapons. They recall that plutonium from an unsafeguarded Canadian-supplied research reactor and US heavy water were used when india exploded its nuclear device in May 1974.
Indian officials say the US no longer has a veto over reprocessing at Tarapur.They claim that inspections and safeguards have been transferred to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna under agreements reached with the IAEA in 1971 and 1980.
This reprocessing issue is only the latest nuclear dispute to bedevil US-Indian relations. During the Carter administration, the two countries were constantly at loggerheads over the interpretation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978. To qualify for American nuclear fuel, the act requires that non-nuclear weapons states must place all their facilities under the IAEA's "full scope" safeguards inspection system. India has refused, claiming that such a requirement discriminates against countries which do not possess nuclear weapons. New Delhi insists that the US legislation is irrelevant because Washington is committed under the supply agreement to provide fuel for Tarapur until 1993.
President Carter expended heavy political capital last September to persuade the Senate to authorize two more shipments of enriched uranium for Tarapur. He argued that the uranium supply would deny India a pretext to reprocess the spent Tarapur fuel and would advance other US nonproliferation objectives. But the narrow 48-46 Senate vote was a hollow victory. The day after the Senate action, a Foreign Ministry spokesman in New Delhi reiterated India's opposition to international inspection of all its nuclear activities.
The congressional debates have largely ignored the foreign policy and security considerations which have motivated India to keep its nuclear options open -- including New delhi's concern over Chinese nuclear capabilities. Moreover, these debates have given undue prominence to Tarapur's role in India's expanding nuclear program and have exaggerated the amount of leverage available to the US as a supplier of enriched uranium.
India already has access to enough plutonium from other sources to develop nuclear weapons. It has several unsafeguarded power reactors and is building more. Although it does not have a uranium enrichment capability, it possesses small uranium deposits and the world's largest thorium reserves. In addition, India has the largest pool of nuclear specialists in Asia with more than 10,000 nuclear engineers and technicians.
Anticipating a possible US fuel cutoff, Indian scientists are considering the feasibility of eventually fueling the two Tarapur reactors with a mixture of plutonium (derived from reprocessiong) and uranium oxide. In the interim, other suppliers of enriched uranium, including France and the Soviet Union, will be available if needed.
This does not mean that India plans to build a nuclear arsenal. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi recently reaffirmed that "India does not possess nuclear weapons and has no intention of developing them." Domestic politics in India, and the actions of China and Pakistan, will determine whether or not these intentions change -- rather than US legislative sanctions affecting only one power station.
President Carter's nuclear policies toward India failed. The Reagan administration has an opportunity for "a new beginning." Even if the new administration wanted to, it probably could not obtain congressional support for another uranium shipment. And it will be difficult to get enough votes to amend the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act to provide an exception for the 1963 supply agreement.
The best alternative for Reagan officials is to try to phase out the supply agreement amicably in a manner designed to protect US nonproliferation interests. Frustrated by the extended controversies and the delays in fuel shipments, Indian officials can be counted upon to respond favorably to a proposal to discuss an amicable termination.
In phasing out the supply agreement, Washington should try to obtain an understanding from India that IAEA safeguards will be retained at Tarapur. These safeguards can be used to ensure that plutonium derived from the 200 tons of US-origin spent fuel is not diverted to nuclear tests or to the manufacture of nuclear weapons, and is not exported from India.
There is a precedent for such a procedure. After the 1974 Indian nuclear explosion, when Canada stopped supplying heavy water to a power station in Rajasthan, india continued to accept international safeguards at the Rajasthan plant. If similar arrangements can be worked out for Tarapur, US nonproliferation objectives will be largely protected and the nuclear albatross will be removed from t he US-Indian bilateral relationship.