India Makes Small Non-proliferation Progress

On June 23, 2014, India ratified the Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), six years after committing to allow IAEA inspectors access to its civilian nuclear program. Under the Additional Protocol, India commits to placing all 14 of its civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards by the end of the year, allowing more intensive and intrusive IAEA inspections.

The ratification comes as India continues to seek admission into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a multinational body of “nuclear supplier countries” that strive to limit nuclear weapons proliferation through nuclear export guidelines. While the Nuclear Suppliers Group prohibits members from supplying nuclear materials and technologies to states that are not party to the NPT, the group agreed in 2008 to provide India with a waiver in the wake of the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative between the United States and India.

In the background, India first tested a nuclear device in 1974 illegally using Canadian and other foreign assistance provided to its nuclear energy programs. The test used plutonium produced in the Canadian-supplied CIRUS reactor, but India nonetheless called it a "peaceful nuclear explosion."

It is under the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative that India is now allowing expanded IAEA access. The Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative was a 2008 agreement between the United States and India designed to facilitate nuclear cooperation; ratification of the Additional Protocol was one of its conditions. The initiative was promising on paper; it included an Indian commitment to allow IAEA inspectors access to its civilian nuclear program, to strengthen its nuclear weapons arsenal security, and to continue its moratorium on nuclear weapons testing -- all of which seemed to align with nonproliferation concerns. In exchange for these commitments, India would be eligible to buy U.S. dual-use nuclear technology and would receive imported fuel for its nuclear reactors.

However, despite the promise, the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative has been slow to produce tangible results: the six year gap between agreement and ratification of the IAEA Additional Protocol being just one example of this. Dubbed a “false promise” by critics, initial enthusiasm for the deal in 2008 quickly faded into frustrating paralysis. Why the delay? Some have pointed to India’s 2010 Nuclear Civil Liability Law as the major roadblock in the progress of implementing the US-India nuclear deal, as it obliges nuclear suppliers to be liable for payments in the case of an accident. Because of this law, U.S. nuclear companies have been hesitant to make commercial arrangements with  to India, rendering the U.S. commitment to provide nuclear technology and fuel moot.

On India’s side, its efforts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group were not mirrored by similar efforts to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) or the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), causing many to view the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative a reversal for U.S. nonproliferation efforts. Additionally, critics argued that the scope of the 2008 U.S.-India nuclear deal (which focused only on India’s civilian nuclear program) was too narrow. Supplying India with nuclear materials and technologies while not addressing India’s military nuclear program led to fears that the deal could contribute to a nuclear arms race in South Asia.

Despite these criticisms and despite the six-year delay in ratification, the fact that India is finally allowing intensive and intrusive IAEA inspections is a constructive first step. Admittedly, it is small and long-overdue, but allowing greater IAEA access is a positive step nonetheless. It contributes to the development of an international precedent for IAEA inspections, and it strengthens the relationship between the United States and India. Furthermore, with less than two months remaining before Indian Prime Minister Modi’s scheduled visit to Washington D.C., India’s recent ratification of the IAEA Additional Protocol may encourage nuclear issues to be addressed at the forthcoming meeting.

There is still much work to be done in the implementation of the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative, and larger questions regarding India’s overall goal of joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group without first signing the NPT should be discussed rather than ignored (perhaps even discussed at the September meeting in Washington). But in a deal which has remained stagnant for six years, even the smallest action can initiate renewed dialogue and progress.