Is India considering eventually reneging on a nuclear fuel agreement with the US and reprocessing American-supplied uranium? A press report from New Delhi suggested that this decision is being contemplated. But such a step would constitute an ominous development in the often fragile relationship among the nations sharing the Indian subcontinent. The reprocessing, after all, would recover plutonium, which could be used to produce a nuclear bomb.
According to the US State Department, it is the "understanding" of the American government that the reprocessing that is contemplated by India involves non-US spent fuels. The Indian government in past months has strongly insisted that any recovered plutonium would be used to provide power, rather than be used for weapons. Yet, it is no secret that India is concerned that rival Pakistan may be working on a nuclear device. If Pakistan develops such a weapon the political and military balance in the region would be sharply altered. For that reason Prime Minister Gandhi told her nation's Parliament recently that if Pakistan developed nuclear devices India would be forced to do so also.
The official position of the US has been that, if India were to reprocess spent fuel from the US-built Tarapur atomic power plant, it would be a violation of a 1963 agreement between the two nations. India, however, contends that the US no longer has jurisdiction over any reprocessing decisions at the facility, since the Indian government has "transferred" inspection and safeguard responsibilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.
The Reagan administration needs to obtain absolute clarification from the Indian government as to exactly what reprocessing steps are contemplated and that there is no likelihood that India will at some point reprocess spent fuel from the Tarapur facility. At the same time, the administration --which according to the State Department is still reviewing its nuclear policy toward India --velopment of atomic weapons on the Indian subcontinent with the gravest possible concern.
On the other hand, if India indicates a decision at some point to go ahead with reprocessing of the materials from Tarapur, the US should take all appropriate steps to demand that India abide by the 1963 joint agreement. The US would also be justified in requesting that the spent fuel be returned to the US (a step that would require congresssional approval). Timidity about a firm US position, given all the consequences in nuclear proliferation, would be inexcusable.
India's concerns about wanting to ensure full nuclear parity with Pakistan can be understood, in light of the troubled history between those two nations. But the danger to world peace resulting from nuclear rivalry in the Indian subcontinent must not be taken lightly. The Reagan administration needs to work out as quickly as possible an overall policy regarding that region that clearly works towards reducing development of nuclear weapons and furthers the success of the nonproli feration treaty.