India’s nuclear expansion: climate change and the Great Game

Climate change and nuclear weapons proliferation are the biggest dangers facing humanity. The two issues are inextricably and dramatically linked in the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal.

In its drive to industrialize, India will need enormous amounts of electricity. As in many other major economies in the world, most of India’s new power will come from two main sources: nuclear and coal. More nuclear means less coal, and vice versa. If we, the developed world, want developing economies to expand without massive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions becoming a permanent fixture of these economies, we have to encourage expansion of nuclear. Otherwise, coal will predominate and efforts to curb global GHG emissions will be futile.

The situation is already urgent. India suffers from chronic shortages of fuel for its 17 existing power reactors. Electricity output from the reactors was 10 percent less last year than in the year before. This is no way to expand an economy. Hence the urgency with which the Indian government is trying to finalize the deal with the Americans. It faces a formidable challenge from its leftist coalition partners, whose opposition to the deal threatens to at least delay it by a few years.

Of course, the rollout of nuclear power in the developing world has to take place within strict non-proliferation rules. Nuclear trade has to be for peaceful purposes only.

This is where it gets interesting. India is also a nuclear weapons state and will remain so for the foreseeable future. It joined the weapons club in 1974 without the club’s permission (see article), and has been barred from the international civilian nuclear trade ever since.

For strategic reasons, the U.S. badly wants India as an ally. America’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, especially since September 11, has led to diplomatic and military maneuvering in what has become the latest round of the Great Game—the international struggle for influence in Greater Central Asia. Good relations with the greatest power in South Asia will help immeasurably in dealing with Iran. Civilian nuclear trade is the vehicle through which the U.S. hopes to solidify the rapprochement with India. Other weapons states—especially Russia and France—feel the same way, so if the deal is successful India will be an accepted member of the nuclear weapons club and will have international help in expanding its nuclear power sector.

Allowing nuclear trade with India requires significant changes in rules, policies, and legislation in many countries, and it requires those countries’—including Canada’s—permission. This is a huge and ambitious diplomatic undertaking. If successful, it will be a major step forward on both climate change and non-proliferation.

Canada appears ready to support the deal. If and when it comes to a vote in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Canada’s position could become a public issue in this country. Regardless of its salience in our public discourse, our stance on India’s nuclear expansion is a momentous decision. Together with our presence in Afghanistan, it will define the nature of our relationship with the post-9/11 diplomatic world.

Whether we like it or not, Canada is playing the Great Game.

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