A cure for Canada’s nuclear headache with India: critical thinking

Last July, a series of power blackouts in northern India left close to 700 million people without electricity for two days. This made it the biggest power blackout event in history. Its cause was high loading on critical transmission lines by utilities working in poor, or no, coordination with a central administrator. It is really sobering when you remember that a sizeable portion of India’s population never has power. At the time of the blackout there was a nine percent gap between the country’s demand for power and its supply of it. So, while it is essential to beef up India’s transmission system, it is even more imperative to get new supply. And if we want to minimize the amount of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) going into our air, that supply must be nuclear.

Indian classroom during the blackout: you need electric light for proper education

India already has a few nuclear generators, most of which run on natural uranium moderated with heavy water. Two of the original reactors are based on Canada’s famous CANDU (Canadian Deuterium Uranium) design, which features horizontal individual pressurized fuel channels. In the early years of Canada’s once-good nuclear relationship with India, there was so much collaboration and knowledge transfer between Canadians and Indians that India was able to build a small fleet of reactors based on indigenous designs that were closely related to the CANDU.

The CANDU reactor face: when the reactor is in operation, automated machines push fresh fuel in the front and pull used fuel out the back

But then—1974. India in that year used plutonium made in a Canadian-donated research reactor to successfully test a prototype nuclear bomb. Canada was officially furious over this: Canada is one of the original anti-proliferation stalwarts, and an enthusiastic supporter of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. We charged that India had violated the agreement under which Canada had donated the research reactor. Canada alleged that the agreement clearly stated that India was not to use the reactor for anything but peaceful purposes.

India denied that there was any ill intent behind the detonation and argued that the research-reactor agreement had not explicitly ruled out a plutonium explosion test. More importantly, India felt Canada was being a bit hypocritical. During the Cold War, Canadian warplanes were armed with American nuclear weapons. Our claim that we are a non-weapons state rings a bit false when you take that fact into account. Moreover, India did not have a well-armed U.S.-style ally as a neighbor. Instead, India’s neighbors were Pakistan and China. Neither of these countries was, or is, a friend of India.  China had successfully tested a thermonuclear weapon in 1967, not even 35 months after successfully testing a 22-kiloton A-bomb. Taking all that into account, India found Canada’s lectures on the evils of nuclear weapons a bit tedious.

So the paths diverged. India did not budge from its refusal to sign the NPT: its reason was then and is today that the treaty arbitrarily legitimizes a nuclear-armed rival, China, while delegitimizing India. In 1975 Canada and the U.S. formed the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an international cartel which excludes non-signatories like India from participating in global civilian nuclear trade.

Cut to 2005, when the U.S. under George W. Bush decided to make India an ally. Bush lobbied the NSG, which operates on a decision-by-consensus basis, to exempt India from the rule that says no NSG country will trade with another country that has not signed the NPT. Canada and the other 43 member countries in the cartel agreed.  Canada hoped that India’s chronic gap between electricity supply and demand, and India’s familiarity with pressurized heavy water reactors like the CANDU, would lead to lucrative nuclear exports. Canada and India signed an in-principle nuclear cooperation deal in 2010.

Which brings us to today. Canada hopes to sign a broader free-trade deal with India. The show-stopper though is the nuclear deal. Canada, I guess to save face, wants to be able to monitor any Indian nuclear installation containing Canadian equipment or materials in order to verify it is not diverting nuclear materials for military purposes.

Why Canada wants this is a bit of a mystery. India possesses a dedicated plutonium production reactor, and—most important—uranium enrichment facilities. As a de-facto NPT weapon state, India is not obliged to open these facilities to international inspections. Canada has nothing to do with either of these facilities, and wants to trade only in civilian equipment and materials: reactors and components, uranium, and possibly heavy water.

Besides, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) already has a safeguards agreement with India that covers the civilian installations that are the object of Canada’s trade ambitions.

I suspect that Canada’s position is a product of bureaucratic inertia, a hangover from the pre-2005 days. A hard-headed look at India’s military capabilities would show that India will not waste its time with the low-quality plutonium in used reactor fuel. Its uranium isotope separation capability and dedicated plutonium production reactor give India the three vital components of efficient bomb-making:

  1. Highly enriched uranium (>90 percent uranium-235) for reactor fuel.
  2. High-purity uranium-238 as target material.
  3. A heavy water moderated reactor with deliberately engineered target ports.

… all of which work together to produce neutrons in great abundance. With abundant neutrons, you can bombard U-238 to make lots of Pu-239 and as few as possible of the other bothersome plutonium isotopes that put an extremely inconvenient shelf-life on your plutonium bomb.

In view of this, why would India waste its time extracting low-quality plutonium from used reactor fuel? The answer: it wouldn’t. India tried and failed to join the thermonuclear weapon club, in 1998. The country’s nuclear defense doctrine, and its prestige, depend on a successful test. Canada does not need to worry about India using sub-standard materials from civilian power reactors in its quest for nuclear security and prestige. In any case, those are military considerations, which have nothing to do with Canada.

Let’s sign the deal already.

[AFTERWORD: no sooner had I posted this article than the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which is responsible for the verification and monitoring aspects of Canada’s international nuclear deals, announced that the CNSC and the Indian Department of Atomic Energy have successfully concluded the deal.]

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