Controlling India's atom

The confrontation between the Carter administration and Congress over whether to sell 38 tons of enriched uranium to India is a vexed one. Arguments can be made on both sides of the issue. President Carter's decision to go ahead with the sale seems dictated largely by US strategic interests in South Asia and the desire to improve ties with India. Committees of the Congress, on the other hand, oppose the move on grounds of abiding by the US Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978. Which factor -- the law on nuclear export policy or political considerations -- should govern? We come down in principle on the side of nonproliferation. But, recognizing that the competing arguments in this case are devilishly balanced, it is possible that a compromise solution would best serve that end.

Certainly there is no more crucial global problem than curbing the spread of nuclear weapons. If worlwide efforts to keep that genie in the bottle are diluted -- and there already have been far too many setbacks -- then all else may become irrelevant. The major concern in this case is that the US, which has led the crusade for nonproliferation, not be seen rewarding a country that is a leading candidate to become a nuclear weapons power. India has exploded an atomic device. It has also tested ballistic missiles. If it continues to be the beneficiary of US nuclear aid -- despite its unwillingness to place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive international safeguards as called for by US law -- what kind of signal will this send to other countries.?

The point is that India is not a member of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) of 1968. Countries that are members are assured availability of nuclear technology for purposes of peaceful energy development but are under obligation to place all their facilities under inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. If India is now supplied with more fuel, this could suggest to adherents of the NPt that it is more attractive to be outside the treaty. Certainly, to avoid such legitimate complaints, the US needs to set an example.

Ironically, Mr. Carter's decision to sell the fuel to India is inconsistent with the US position taken at the recent conference reviewing the NPT. There the Americans worked hard to achieve informal agreement from such suppliers as West Germany not to export nuclear material to non-NPT countries unless they placed all their nuclear installations under full-scope IAEA safeguards. This is precisely what the US law calls for. India has accepted safeguards at the Tarapur atomic plant for which the uranium would be supplied but not for its other nuclear installations.

In this case, however, there is a complicating legal factor. India feels that the US is reneging on its 1963 agreement to supply lowenriched uranium fuel for Tarapur until 1993. But, while India has not technically violated that contract, it undermined the premise on which it was drawn when in 1974 it set off a nuclear explosion. It turned out the Indians had used safeguarded Canadian fuel to make the device. It was after this that the US began pushing for tighter controls on exports and passed the nonproliferation law. To make an exception now would seem to deal a blow to that law.

Yet an added legal wrinkle is that India placed orders for the nuclear fuel during the grace period before the law went into effect. The Carter administration at the time simply chose not to act on the two license applications.

Which brings us to the political question. There is no denying that US relations with India take on heightened importance in light of the turmoil in Southwest Asia. Despite the close ties India itself has with the Soviet Union, the US prudently seeks to influence Indian policy on the side of checking Soviet expansionism. Whether the supply of uranium for Tarapur will assure that end is a moot question, however. It can be argued that India will shape its policies on the basis of its perceived national interest, whether it receives American nuclear fuel or not. The Indians are extremely independent. A US policy that counts on Indian accommodation in return for American favors could well prove shortsighted.

What, Then, should be done? If the overriding concern is the practical one of keeping India from building and exploding any more bombs, a middle-ground solution may be the most judicious course. The administration is amenable to a proposal that Congress allow the first shipment of fuel (19 tons) which is needed soon for operation of the Tarapur plant but delay the second shipment for a year or two until replenishment is required. In the interim India would have to provide assurances it was not preparing a new nuclear explosion or building nuclear weapons.

This, one would hope, would give the US some leverage in Indian nuclear decisions, especially as they concern a potential nuclear arms race with Pakistan. It would make possible continued safeguarding of the hundreds of tons of spent fuel at Tarapur, which -- if the contract were not honored -- India could feel free to use to extract weapons-grade plutonium. It would also be an assurance to non-nuclear states that the US is a reliable supplier of nuclear technology and material even while it is striving for safeguards on their use.

The next time around, needless to say, the onus would be on India to show that it shares the world's nonproliferation objectives. Meanwhile, this sticky situation shows how much harder mankind will have to work to achieve these goals in the face of commercial, energy, political, and other pressures.

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