Canada has figured prominently, if unwillingly, in five decades of Indian nuclear weapons development. Now that Washington has proposed changing the rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – rules that currently preclude nuclear cooperation with India – Canada has an opportunity to channel its historical involvement to support for multilateral rules that constrain India ‘s nuclear ambitions and promote non-proliferation objectives.
Canada supplied India its first heavy water nuclear reactor, the CIRUS, during the 1950s, exclusively for “peaceful purposes.” The CIRUS, over the protestations of Canada, nevertheless became the source of the weapons grade plutonium used to build India ‘s first nuclear warhead, which was detonated in 1974. Since then the CIRUS and the larger Indian-built Dhruva reactor, based on the CIRUS design, have supplied most of the weapons grade plutonium for India’s current arsenal of about 50 warheads and plutonium for another 50.
Through the NSG, established largely in response to India’s diversion of civilian technology and materials to military purposes, states agreed to refuse nuclear cooperation (e.g. trade) with non-nuclear weapon states party to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or states outside the NPT that are not under full-scope safeguards – that is, states that maintain nuclear programs and facilities that are not subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and are thus presumed to be used for military purposes.
But later this month the NSG will informally begin to explore an India-only exemption to the full-scope safeguards rule in order to accommodate the US-India nuclear cooperation deal reached in 2005.[i]
The proposed exemption is controversial partly because Pakistan and Israel, also states outside the NPT with nuclear weapons programs, will demand the same deal, and partly because it will embolden states within the NPT and suspected of harboring nuclear weapons ambitions, notably Iran, to defy the obvious double standard inherent in the accommodation to India’s nuclear arsenal while demanding Iran terminate uranium enrichment even for peaceful purposes. But even more controversial is the likelihood, indeed the certainty, that the proposed Indian exemption would, in the name of civilian cooperation, facilitate the accelerated expansion of India ‘s nuclear arsenal.
A 2006 report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials[ii], based at Princeton University , makes that very point. Currently India’s civilian and military programs are both constrained by their reliance on its own limited domestic uranium, so if India were to gain access to the foreign sources of uranium that the deal would open up for its civilian programs, it could then funnel all its domestic supplies into an expanded military program.
The CIRUS reactor, set to run until 2010, could then generate enough plutonium for another 10 warheads. The Dhruva reactor could deliver weapons-grade plutonium sufficient to build another five or six warheads per year. The new breeder reactor that India plans to bring on stream in 2010, could produce weapons grade plutonium from the spent-fuel of India ‘s other unsafeguarded CANDU-style reactors.
All told, under the changed rules, India could accumulate enough plutonium for an arsenal of more than 300 nuclear warheads within a decade – an arsenal to rival or exceed those of the UK, France, or China. The US-India deal will lead to more of India ‘s civilian facilities being brought under IAEA safeguards, but the CIRUS and several of the plutonium producing reactors built on the Canadian model are to be kept out of the IAEA inspections regime, which means that their spent fuel could ultimately be made available for producing fissile material for weapons purposes.
The opportunity for Canada to be a key player owes to its membership in the NSG, the fact that the NSG decision-making is by consensus – essentially giving each member a veto – and Canada ‘s recognized stake in ending the use of Canadian-origin technology for building nuclear weapons.
But there are risks to exercising that de facto veto without any acknowledgement of the unique situation of the three states outside the NPT. The nuclear status quo with regard to India, Israel, and Pakistan is not a compelling one. Refusing them civilian nuclear cooperation has obviously not prevented them from acquiring nuclear weapons, and keeping them out of the formal nuclear non-proliferation regime means they are subject to few legal constraints. The challenge is to create a place for these three de facto nuclear weapons states (North Korea is not a parallel case) inside the nuclear non-proliferation system and to require them in return to accept the same obligation to disarm as applies to those states bound by Article VI of the NPT, and to accept certain obligations and commitments consistent with the overall objectives of non-proliferation (which all three claim to support).
Two important places to start are the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and a freeze on the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, pending the negotiation of a treaty to make the ban permanent (generally referred to as the fissile material cut-off treaty – FMCT).
The CTBT has been agreed to but won’t come into force until it is ratified by all the nuclear weapons states and all states with nuclear reactors – a list that obviously includes India, Israel, and Pakistan (of the three, only Israel has signed and none has ratified it). The US-India deal stipulates that US bilateral cooperation will end if India tests another nuclear device, and at a minimum this commitment should be extended and multilaterialized to make CTBT ratification a precondition for civilian nuclear cooperation and to ensure any NSG exemption would be voided in the event of a weapons test.
Even though India already has enough fissile material to meet any requirements of its declared “minimum deterrence” doctrine, and even though it has declared its support for negotiations toward an FMCT, India appears determined to increase and accelerate fissile material production for weapons purposes while the Treaty negotiations drag on (assuming they ever get started), and for India the NSG exemption is essential to meeting that goal.
Canada has already signaled its opposition. In December 2005 Canada told US officials that while it welcomed efforts to deal constructively with states, like India, outside the NPT, it said “the deal would have been more positive if the United States had obtained an Indian commitment to freeze production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.”[iii] It is a mild statement that nevertheless embodies a principle that the NSG should make its own – that is, civilian nuclear cooperation with India or any de facto nuclear weapon state outside the NPT should also be conditional on them imposing a verifiable freeze on the production of fissile material for weapons purposes until their adherence to an FMCT that converts the freeze into a permanent ban.
Canada is in a position to insist on these conditions, and with forthright leadership others will follow.
[i]Regehr, Ernie. 2005. US-India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement: A further threat to nuclear non-proliferation. Project Ploughshares Briefing 05/3.
[ii] Mian, Zia, AH Nayyar, R Rajaraman & MV Ramana. 2006. Fissile Materials in South Asia : The Implications of the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal. International Panel on Fissile Materials, September. www.fissilematerials.org.
[iii] Squassoni, Sharon. 2006. U.S.Nuclear Cooperation With India : Issues for Congress. CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service, updated 12 January. http://fpc.state.gov/fpc/c16427.htm.