By William S. Cohen
June 21, 2006
The U.S.-India agreement on civil nuclear cooperation is an important manifestation of the growing strategic partnership between our two great democracies. Unfortunately, with less than 50 legislative days before Congress adjourns to pursue elections, the implementing legislation for this landmark agreement still languishes in committee. Time is running out. If not enacted before the congressional summer recess, the chances for ultimate passage will decrease precipitously.
The 2006 midterm elections promise to be some of the closest and most partisan on record. In such an atmosphere, prospects for getting Congress to concentrate on this needed legislation, even after elections, are dim indeed.
A chief delaying tactics by congressional opponents has been to seize on the argument that U.S. cooperation with India on civil nuclear matters will somehow make the world less safe from the scourge of nuclear terror. The reality is just the opposite. For 32 years, the United States has attempted to punish India for failing to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty with no discernable affect on Indian policy. Today, we have the opportunity to formulate a new policy, one that can secure India's cooperative efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, strengthen democratic values and global security.
Some congressional opponents insist action in favor of implementation would remove a constraint on India's strategic weapons program. Their argument is that India has so little natural uranium that providing fissile material for civilian purposes will free up uranium for the Indians to make more nuclear weapons than they might otherwise. While simply put, the argument is simply wrong.
As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice correctly noted during her appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "[We] do not believe that the absence of uranium is really the constraint on the [Indian] nuclear weapons program." India has more than enough uranium both to support its weapons program and its present civil nuclear power program. India could even significantly expand its weapons program and make modest additions to its nuclear power program with its present uranium supplies.
It takes relatively little uranium to make a nuclear weapon, and India's present nuclear power program is so modest it could be expanded within India's existing supplies. As Dr. Ashley J. Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes in a soon-to-be-published paper, the Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency estimate India's reasonably assured assets of uranium at no less than 40,980 tons. A single 20 kiloton nuclear weapon only requires about 6 kilograms of plutonium, which can be produced using little more than 6 metric tons of uranium in a research reactor. India's entire present nuclear weapons program plus its power program plus its new reactors presently being built would require about 650 tons of uranium per year.
Thus, these Indian assets of uranium alone could continue India's program for more than 60 years, and India has reasonable prospects for even more. India has all the natural uranium it needs to produce as many nuclear weapons as it wishes plus an enhanced version of its present nuclear power for the foreseeable future.
The truth is India, in considering its strategic interest, will act in a manner consistent with its national security, with or without this agreement. It is unlikely to agree to limit its fissile material production unilaterally.
Should the U.S. Congress reject this agreement, it might make India's satisfaction of its growing energy needs more difficult, and force it to rely more on fossil fuels, thereby increasing harmful greenhouse gases. However, with this agreement India will work with the United States and others, in the words of Director General of the IAEA and Nobel Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei, "to consolidate the nuclear nonproliferation regime, combat nuclear terrorism and strengthen nuclear safety."
For a safer world, Congress should act now.
William S. Cohen is chairman and chief executive officer of the Cohen Group and is a former defense secretary and U.S. senator from Maine.