During Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s November 2012 visit to India, it was announced that the two countries had reached a nuclear cooperation agreement building on an arrangement first announced between Harper and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2010. To learn more about what this nuclear cooperation means for the future of nuclear energy, security and safeguards, we speak to CIGI researcher Simon Palamar.
CIGI: A defining moment in the history of nuclear cooperation, safety and safeguards occurred in 1974, when India tested an explosion using Canadian-provided plutonium and technology. As India remains a non-signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), what do you think last week’s agreement means for Canada’s role in the non-proliferation movement?
Simon Palamar: It’s important to remember that sometimes countries discard old arrangements that they think are no longer in their interests. This is what happened in 2008, when the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) gave India a waiver allowing it to import nuclear material and technology from NSG countries. No other state that is not part of the NPT has that privilege, including Israel. Last week’s decision was simply ironing out the details of that 2008 agreement. Canada is not the only country that has resumed nuclear trade with India.
Now, in terms of what it means for nuclear horizontal proliferation — that is, the spread of nuclear weapons to new countries — it probably means very little. One of the reasons that India got the NSG waiver is that it has not helped other countries acquire nuclear weapons. I expect that New Delhi will continue to act responsibly, and ultimately, they don’t have much of an interest in helping anyone else to build nuclear bombs.
The agreement, however, has some potential implications for vertical nuclear proliferation in south Asia. Vertical nuclear proliferation means that countries that already have nuclear weapons escalate production, for example, building more of them, or designing new ones. Both India and Pakistan still produce weapon-grade fissile material, which is used to make nuclear bomb cores, and are presumably making new nuclear weapons. While some of India’s nuclear facilities are under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, others are not. The agreement between Canada and India is meant to ensure that Canadian exports — uranium, for example — are not used to help make nuclear weapons. The agreement will involve Canadian and Indian bureaucrats exchanging information and will allow Canada to verify that Canadian uranium is staying inside India’s safeguarded civilian nuclear sector. Currently, India has rather small domestic uranium reserves. Its uranium mines and some of its uranium processing, fuel fabricating, and enrichment and reprocessing facilities are not safeguarded. Since 1974, India has been cut off from global uranium markets, meaning that Indian policy makers had to choose between using India’s uranium to generate electricity or to make nuclear bombs. Regaining access to world uranium markets means that New Delhi no longer has to make that choice. Essentially, India’s domestic uranium supply has been freed up for weapons production. This does not mean that India will accelerate its fissile material production; as some analysts have pointed out, India seemed to have produced far less fissile material than it could have before 2008. Nevertheless, the overall effect of this deal (and the others India has made) is that it opens up New Delhi’s strategic options. India is now far more capable of growing its civilian nuclear sector and it has the option to increase fissile material stockpiles. I don’t expect any Canadian uranium will be used in India’s weapon program. This would be a politically ugly repeat of 1974, something neither country wants.
India can already import from other NSG countries, though. Canada was slow to get the details of the arrangement worked out. So the effect of this agreement alone on India’s weapon production is muted. Overall, it does signal that the rules of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime are flexible. It also probably reinforces the perception among some that the rules do not apply equally to everyone and that Western states will do as they wish, keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of some countries, while selectively aiding and abetting their allies, or in the case of India, states that they want a closer strategic relationship with. This perception has made efforts to create a united diplomatic front against Iran more difficult and the overall deal reinforces the perception that the non-proliferation regime serves the goals of those states that already have nuclear weapons and discriminates against those who do not.
CIGI: The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster caused several countries to reconsider the expansion, and ultimately the use, of nuclear energy. Do you think this Canada-India agreement will be followed by future international nuclear cooperation agreements and the promotion of nuclear energy? Is the world closer, further away or at the same place when it comes to a nuclear renaissance?
Palamar: The Fukushima disaster has certainly taken the steam out of the nuclear renaissance, which was already in doubt due to the massive start-up costs of many reactors. In the wake of Fukushima, we saw policy made on the fly: for example, just two months after the Daiichi incident, the German government announced it would shut down its nuclear reactors by the 2020s. Consequentially, Germany has increased its imports of nuclear-generated electricity, is burning more coal than in 2011 and just fired up a new coal-fires generating station this past year. We are also coming to realize that the world’s supply of fossil fuels — particularly oil and natural gas — is not as constrained as some were forecasting even a few years ago. So, in advanced economies such as Japan, Germany and Switzerland, phasing out nuclear could happen — some would even say it’s more likely than not. The Japanese public has little faith in its government’s ability to safely manage nuclear power and despite the fact that no deaths have been linked to radiation emissions from Fukushima, the public’s fear of ionizing radiation is deep-seated. So some mature markets could dry up. Combined with an abundance of fossil fuels, this means the nuclear renaissance will not happen on the scale once thought.
However, there are plans to build more nuclear reactors around the world today than there was before Fukushima. China, India and Korea in particular are still going to rely on nuclear power. In both China and India, there is a consensus that electricity needs are too great to leave any options off the table. This is one of the reasons the Indo-Canadian deal and the other cooperation deals India has signed are very important. Both India and China are building new reactors and the majority if these projects will come online. There are also a number of smaller reactor projects that will probably move ahead in central and eastern Europe, and in other markets. So Canada still has a distinct interest in the global nuclear industry, since there is going to be a sustained, if not spectacular, demand for uranium in the coming decades. So, short answer: no nuclear renaissance, but nuclear energy will be an important part of the global energy mix for years to come.