Nuclear diplomacy: Canada’s role in India’s entry to the Great Power Club

On February 6, I talked about Canada’s position on whether India should be exempted from Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) rules regarding nuclear trade with countries that are outside of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Exemption could mean de facto recognition of India as a nuclear weapons state—in the same league as the U.S., Russia, China, France, and Britain—because India has refused to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections at “strategic”, i.e., military, nuclear sites. It also won’t commit to refrain from weapons testing, and won’t stop producing explosive fuel for bombs.

I mentioned that there were pro and con arguments circulating through the Canadian government. According to Mark Hibbs of Platts, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAIT) supports the exemption and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) opposes it, and DFAIT is getting its way. The issue still requiring diplomatic resolution between Canada and India is India’s use of plutonium from a Canadian reactor to make its first nuclear bomb in 1974.

Canada has been trying to patch this up for a few years now. Our position appears to be to let bygones be bygones when it comes to India, in service of the twin goals of finding a research partner on thorium fuel development and supporting the U.S. effort to strengthen relations with the biggest country on the Asian sub-continent. Here’s what David Malone, Canada’s High Commissioner to India, told a university audience in India on February 12: “[The cool relationship between Canada and India] changed … when both governments … woke up to the fact that allowing [the nuclear] issue to dominate the relationship was a bad idea, and that we could agree to disagree about what happened in 1974 and move on recognizing that India had not proliferated internationally since it created nuclear weapons.” (Note the reference only to 1974, though that wasn’t the only instance of India using Canadian know-how in its weapons program. But this is diplomacy.)

What does “move on” mean? Does it mean agreeing to unconditionally exempt India from NSG export rules, an issue which is being debated right now? Perhaps: it appears that influential NSG countries, including Canada, are cool to the idea of restrictions on exports of enrichment, reprocessing, or heavy water production technology to India. India certainly wants this technology.

This is where it could present a challenge. India wants to base a future generation of reactors on fast breeder technology, and will need plutonium to fuel them; hence its desire for enrichment/reprocessing imports. A breeder program would provide plutonium for enough weapons to allow India to present simultaneous, credible nuclear deterrents to certain of its nuclear neighbors.

But the cardinal rule of the NPT is that no signatory should aid in another country’s weapons program. How could the NSG ensure that no sensitive material goes into India’s weapons? In theory, by subjecting all Indian nuclear installations to permanent international safeguards. If this is not possible, such an exemption could create a hole through which NSG-supplied material could slip into India’s military program.

For the above-mentioned strategic reasons, as well as domestic political ones, India has long refused to allow permanent safeguards at all its facilities. Because of this, the Arms Control Association demanded in a recent open letter that NSG countries not export any enrichment, reprocessing, or heavy water production technology to India. However, as mentioned, Canada appears ready to allow such exports. This might mean that, if we are to avoid entirely abandoning our non-proliferation principles, not to mention forgetting about 1974, we will have to be polite but firm on safeguards.

Is this a show-stopper? India’s position against full permanent safeguards may yet contain some wiggle room. Domestic Indian opposition is strongest in the case of the deal with the U.S., which says that transferred material and equipment is “subject to safeguards in perpetuity in accordance with the India-specific Safeguards Agreement between India and the IAEA.” It may not be so vociferous if the other NSG members, such as Russia, were to insist on similar terms.

So proponents of nuclear trade with India are pulling out their best diplomacy. David Malone’s “move on” may therefore be an attempt to convey Canada’s strong desire for a deal while encouraging India to reconsider some aspects of its position on safeguards.

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15 years ago

Canada isn’t the only country to try to cut a separate deal with India over nuclear fuel and technology. Last month French president Nickolas Sarkozy went to India for this purpose. So like Canada, which wants to sell AECL’s new ACR1000 reactor to India, and France, which wants to sell Areva’s EPR, both countries see opportunities for nuclear exports solely because they are not the U.S.

Steve Aplin
15 years ago

I don’t know if Canada is trying to cut a separate deal, I think we’re trying to settle the 1974 issue and that we’d be satisfied if the terms of the U.S. deal apply to other NSG members.

I wonder if there is any move to put nuclear power back into eligibility under the Clean Development Mechanism. Environment Canada told me no and emphatically no last year, but if we start dealing with India, I wonder if that could change.

15 years ago

Canada could learn a lot from India, especially concerning the use of thorium and breeder reactors. This kind of collaboration could be the key factor that Canada needs to remain a player in the international reactor building industry. So the stakes are high – i.e. Canadian jobs.

Suppose India had not developed nuclear weapons. Does anyone think they would be anything but a bunch of burning cities at this point? Gasp – could it be that nuclear weapons prevent war? What a concept!

We have to turn off the industrial carbon combustion in India. If anyone has a better plan than helping them get nuclear, this is the time to speak up. Anyone? Anyone?

Are there more than ten people in Canada who even know what happened in 1974, and do any of them care any more? I doubt it.

Steve Aplin
15 years ago

Randal, I’m not sure India would be a pile of smoking rubble if it had not developed atomic weapons. Would China have nuked it? I know China was erratic and aggressive even with the USSR during the 60s, but that was more a product of its insecurity in the face of a more powerful enemy. India’s program was about national pride. You could argue that its 1974 test was the impetus for Pakistan’s own program. Would Bhutto have thrown so much money at the Khans if India hadn’t exploded a bomb?

I know we have to move past this sooner or later, but there have to be conditions. It definitely would be better if India’s power sector were based on nuclear than coal, but why not open up the whole sector. If Iran goes against the NPT, don’t give them a good excuse to do so.