India asserts itself in nuke talks with US

President Bush arrives in India Wednesday. Nuclear talks will be high on the agenda.

If Henry Kissinger is right - that there are no permanent alliances, only permanent national interests - then the US and India should be in for a long friendship.

Yet Mr. Kissinger's doctrine may provide a cautionary tale for the US, particularly when it comes to India's nuclear program.

In 11th-hour negotiations to formally accept its status as a nuclear power, India has signaled that it is not afraid to stand up to the world's sole superpower if its national interests are at stake.

In the lead up to President Bush's first trip to India, which begins Wednesday, both countries tamped down expectations of a final deal and continued to work on something Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could sign before Bush's departure on Saturday for Pakistan.

As the fierce debate over India's long-secret nuclear program shows - with American critics calling it a breach in global nonproliferation, and Indian critics shouting for sovereignty - it is clear that India feels it can negotiate with a superpower, as an equal.

"India is not going to be a junior partner to the US, and India is not going to be uncritically supportive of the US on all issues," says C. Rajamohan, a member of India's National Security Advisory Board.

Stumbling over inspections

At the core of the controversy is a US proposal to grant official Nuclear Power Status to India, including the ability to buy nuclear fuels and parts on the global market, in return for Indian cooperation with regular inspections by the UN-mandated International Atomic Energy Agency.

India has agreed in principle to allow inspections at a number of its civilian nuclear plants, but wants to withhold certain military and research labs from IAEA inspection.

The proposed landmark nuclear agreement, announced during Singh's visit to Washington last July, has been criticized by nonproliferation experts around the world because India never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Under US and international law, nuclear technology can only be shared with countries who have signed the treaty.

In Washington, some members of Congress argue that the Bush administration could be setting a dangerous double standard by granting India Nuclear Power Status, while denying it to countries such as Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran.

But Indian experts say they're not asking for too much.

"We really don't want the moon," says Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan, a nuclear scientist and former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board in Hyderabad. "The rational view is to state the obvious: India is a nuclear power. Then you figure out how much you can live with, and what are the minimal modifications you can get over time."

But Dr. Gopalakrishnan says there is a powerful sense of suspicion - and even revenge - among India's nuclear science establishment toward the US.

"It is the US that forced such painful sanctions on us" in 1974, after India tested its first nuclear bomb, "and it is these same guys who are trying to change the rules again," he says. "In 2006, we will not be kissing and making up."

Nuclear scientists like Gopalakrishnan, and even the preternaturally gentle Indian President A. P. J. Kalam, take great pride in India's ability to build its nuclear program from scratch. Forbidden from buying nuclear fuels such as Uranium 233 or specialized nuclear power-plant parts on the highly regulated global market, India had to build every part on its own, and to develop an indigenous nuclear power process that would take advantage of the radioactive materials that India does have in abundance.

Today, India is about 10 to 15 years away from creating a fully functional fast breeder reactor plant that uses plutonium and other radioactive fuels to irradiate a metal called thorium. In the irradiation process, thorium gives off uranium 233, which can be burned at high temperatures as a fuel to generate electricity. India has 40 percent of the world's supply of thorium, enough for it to supply dozens of Indian-designed fast breeder reactors around the world.

Indian experts, politicians, and diplomats argue that this technology is crucial for India to meet its growing energy needs into the future. And Indian scientists like Gopalakrishnan argue that they can continue to develop their fast breeder reactors without international assistance, or interference.

"In the last 30 years, the US has not been doing anything with fast breeder reactors," says Gopalakrishnan.

That ability to create an entirely indigenous nuclear program gives India the ability to walk away from a deal with the US, Gopalakrishnan argues.

Secure in that knowledge and perhaps keen to assure parliamentary members worried he might be too generous at the bargaining table with Bush, Singh said in a speech before Parliament on Monday that his government would protect India's fast breeder reactor program.

"We have made it clear that we cannot accept safeguards on our indigenous fast breeder program," he said.

India's advances in nuclear science

One of the main reasons that the US wants to engage with India is that India has brought advances in nuclear science at a time when fossil-fuel supplies appear to have peaked, and most existing nuclear-power plants are 15 years old, he added. "This gives us confidence to engage in these negotiations as an equal partner," he said.

Ultimately, dealing with democracies can be a messy process, says Rajamohan.

"You can have a deal with China, and it's decided," he says. "But when you have two democracies talking with one another, it is a far more complex process."

Rajamohan expects that India will grow into its new economic and strategic power over time, and will be accepted on its merits. "Don't forget that the US became the largest economy in 1901, but it wouldn't join its European allies to fight in World War I [for a long time] and it wouldn't join the League of Nations," he says.

"A democracy always takes a long time to respond to its own changed capabilities."

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