People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 23

June 22 , 2008


The Nuclear Deal: Gag Orders And Uranium Shortage

Prabir Purkayastha

THE India US nuclear deal has again hit the front pages as the Manmohan Singh government and Bush administration try a last ditch attempt to salvage the deal. All kinds of reasons are being given by the UPA government including the myth of a permanent uranium shortage. Yes, there is an immediate shortage of uranium for the existing power plants, despite enough uranium in the ground. But the UPA government's attempt to rustle up this argument for justifying the deal raises the uncomfortable question that was this shortage deliberately created for this very purpose?

While the media is happy playing cheerleaders for the nuclear deal with the US, it somehow seems to have missed the importance of the gag order that the US administration imposed on the Foreign Affairs Committee on its answers to their questions on the deal. It has refused to ask the obvious question, why has the Bush administration asked for this gag order?

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs sent in a set of over 40 questions last October to the state department on the India US nuclear deal. These questions dealt with different sets of answers provided to the public by the two sides on the implications of the 123 Agreement. While the US side has held that the 123 Agreement was in full conformity with the Hyde Act, the Indian side has argued that the Hyde Act is not relevant to India US nuclear trade and only the 123 Agreement was. In fact spokespersons of the Indian government have gone a step further and claimed that the problems in the Hyde Act were overcome by specific provisions of the 123 Agreement which overrules the Hyde Act. It is in this context that the US Congress had asked for explicit clarifications on what are widely perceived as contradictions in the US and Indian claims on 123 Agreement and the Hyde Act.

The US state department gave answers to these questions in March this year. These answers are officially “unclassified”. Nevertheless, the US state department requested that the Foreign Affairs Committee not release this to the public. The Washington Post reported on May 9 that the responses to the questions are still locked up in a safe at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. It wrote, “The US state department has asked lawmakers to keep secret its answers to their queries about the agreement, fearing that public disclosure may torpedo the deal. Lynne Weil, a spokesperson for the House Foreign Affairs committee, said the state department provided a lot of information, but the committee has agreed not to disclose the answers because “some data might be considered diplomatically sensitive”.

Obviously, the answers provided to the US lawmakers will not torpedo the deal from the US side. If the answers are that the US administration has drafted a 123 Agreement that overrides the provisions of the Hyde Act passed by the US Congress, it is highly unlikely that the US Congress, which jealously guards its turf from encroachment by the executive, would have meekly agreed to gag itself. The only interpretation of the gag order is that if made public, it would contradict what the India government's spokespersons have been saying and buttress what the Left has stated all along - the 123 Agreement is in full conformity with the Hyde Act and the Hyde Act provisions are built into the various clauses of the 123 Agreement. That is the only explanation for this unusual gag order.

What did the answers reveal which was not in public domain earlier? After all, Condi Rice and Nick Burns have made a number of statements to the Congress and on other platforms which are quite different from that made by Indian officials. According to the Washington Post, the problem was that the questions were much too specific and detailed and therefore the answers did not have the kind of wiggle room Indian spokespersons have used to obfuscate the issues.


While we have no access to the letter of the answers, we can and do have some idea about the questions asked and the answers given. The US non-proliferation lobby has been active with US Congress members and have issued public statements on the kind of questions asked. From the press briefings and other background material, we identify what are the possible questions and the probable answers.

Some of the key questions deal with fuel enrichment, reprocessing, or heavy water production-related items. Manmohan Singh had stated in parliament that the India US nuclear deal envisages complete access to nuclear technology and will bring India out of sanctions. The Hyde Act, as the Left has pointed out, explicitly bars the transfer of such technology to India. Clearly, a categorical answer to questions on transfer of such technology to India would be “No” and would immediately contradict what Manmohan Singh and others in the UPA are saying. As we have pointed out earlier, such technology is also dual use: many of these technologies are also used in other applications. So a bar on such technologies does not only mean not getting access to nuclear fuel technology but also a host of other technologies. Therefore, when the UPA spokespersons talk about sanctions on India being lifted, they are at best being economical with truth. India will continue to be under sanctions for all dual use technologies. The lifting of sanctions is restricted to buying costly reactors from the US and other countries through this deal. As we have explained earlier in these columns, it is more a scheme to kick-start the moribund nuclear industry in the US than help India generate nuclear energy.


Some people have argued that even if the US does not lift its sanctions on dual use technology, the NSG could give a clean exemption to India after which India could get such technology from others. However, the Left has pointed out that the Hyde Act makes clear that the US would have to insist in NSG that the NSG exemption should be of the same nature as the US exmeptions. Otherwise, it would be against US's economic interests. While we are not aware of the actual answer provided to the Foreign Affairs Committee, it is important to note that the US has recently supported a new "criteria-based" NSG guideline on the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing items. This guideline would prohibit the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technology to any country that has not signed the NPT or does not allow full-scope IAEA inspections. It is difficult to see how, as some of the “experts” suggest, India can get a clean exemption from the NSG.

The next set of questions pertains to what would happen if the US walked out of the nuclear deal. Would there be legally binding obligations on the US to help India get nuclear fuel for its reactors from other sources? Would there be a minimum of one year of period before which the US cannot terminate its cooperation or does the US have the right unconditionally to cease cooperation immediately if it so desires? The answer provided by the US state department, from our information is that US has no binding legal obligation. Neither is there a mandatory one year cooling off period. The US retains the unconditional right to cease cooperation if and when it desires. Of course, this will be based on US determining that India has taken actions that US believes constitute grounds for termination of cooperation. As the Left has pointed out earlier, what constitutes grounds for termination can be decided by each of the concerned parties. The provisions of the Hyde Act on Iran, for example, could constitute such grounds for the US.



One of the more important questions asked by the Foreign Affairs Committee was clarifications on what India claims as fuel supply assurances given in the 123 Agreement. The Indian side has interpreted the vague statements contained in Article 5 of the 123 Agreement as a binding obligation on the United States to assist India in finding alternate sources of nuclear fuel in the event that the United States ceases nuclear cooperation with India. We understand that the state department's answer is that the United States would not help provide nuclear fuel to India or assist it in obtaining alternate sources if US nuclear trade was terminated.

The major concerns of the Left have been that the agreement does not lift nuclear sanctions, can be terminated at will, does not have any mandatory waiting period before such termination and has no binding obligations for arranging alternate fuel supply. To our understanding, it is precisely because on all these issues, the state department has given answers that bear out Left's position that there is a gag order.

In other words, while the US state department has come clean with its own Congress, the Indian government still refuses to address the concerns raised. It prefers to muddy the issue by interpreting the 123 Agreement having rendered the Hyde Act obsolete and being of no consequence to India. Numerous statements made by the US executive bear out that the Hyde Act and the 123 Agreement are not in contradiction. Any nuclear trade with India must conform to both. It is precisely because the Foreign Affairs Committee have pinned down the US executive to specifics in the Hyde Act and the 123 Agreement that it has come clean and made clear that Indian interpretation on these are not correct. And because this would have blown away whatever chances that the deal may have had, the need for this unusual gag order on essentially unclassified information.



The CPI(M) had issued a press release exploding the myth of a perennial shortage of uranium. Despite using government's own documents to show that India has enough fuel to run nuclear plants producing 10,000 MW for 330 years in PWR's (see Table below), various ministers including Jairam Ramesh are saying we do not have enough uranium to run even our current installed base of approximately 4,000 MW. The question that the government is refusing to answer is why is it that we have uranium in the ground but not for the power plants?

For an answer to this question, we would need to go back to a period when the finance minister was Manmohan Singh and the finance secretary was Montek Sing Ahluwalia. They decided that the Atomic Energy budget had to be cut and the axe fell on the uranium mining sector. The reason given then was that the construction of PWR's was slower than anticipated and as India was facing a resource crunch, the uranium mining requirements could be cut without creating a shortage. What is not explicable is why the neglect of the uranium mining sector continued even when the PWR construction had accelerated considerably. Why did the government and the Atomic Energy Commission not try and accelerate the uranium mining program when it was clear that shortages were looming in the near future? It was only in the last year that we have started to accelerate the uranium mining program, well after it was clear that we are facing immediate shortages of uranium.

However, as the Nuclear Power Corporation's own statements have made clear, this shortage is a temporary one and will be over once the investments made in new mines, expanding older mines, and re-opening one old mine that was closed earlier is done. By end of 2008, these shortages should be over. The question that still remains is why in a power starved country, costly nuclear plants should be allowed to idle for a lack of uranium when there is enough uranium in the ground? Was it just incompetence or is there more than meets the eye on this?

Table: Domestic Sources for Nuclear Energy





Electrical Energy













(In Breeders)



Very Large

Source: Department of Atomic Energy, quoted in Integrated Energy Policy, 2006, Planning Commission, p. 36.


Lest it be thought that only the Left is saying there are adequate uranium resources in the country, one should listen carefully to what Kakodkar, the Atomic Energy Chairman is saying. He has said that there would be a uranium shortage if India started to produce 30,000- to 40,000 MW, that too if we install a number of light water reactors. However, we have only an installed capacity of about 4,000 MW, that too using PWR's. Therefore, this shortage is not the shortage that Kakodkar is talking about. Conflating the two is only a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the issues and stampede the country in the wrong direction.

The major issue with the India US nuclear deal is that it is quite different than what it claims to be. For both administrations, it is “convergence” of strategic interests that is driving the Deal. That is why the degree of secrecy and the lack of transparency on the Deal. If it was simply a matter of securing uranium supplies and reactors, there are other alternatives and routes available. It is this overwhelming drive to align India with the US that is behind the lack of transparency that has become of a hallmark of this deal. The gag order in Washington is just another symptom of this underlying disease.


The major concerns of the Left have been that the agreement does not lift nuclear sanctions, can be terminated at will, does not have any mandatory waiting period before such termination and has no binding obligations for arranging alternate fuel supply. To our understanding, it is precisely because on all these issues, the state department has given answers that bear out Left's position that there is a gag order.