Among the most serious criticisms leveled at the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation initiative agreed to by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is that it would enable India to rapidly expand its nuclear arsenal. This criticism rests upon two crucial assumptions:
Atoms for War? US-Indian Civilian Nuclear Cooperation and India's Nuclear Arsenal by Ashley J. Tellis, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggests both these assumptions are deeply flawed. The study concludes that:
The following is a summary by Ashley J. Tellis. Click on the icon above for the full text of the report.
Among the most serious criticisms leveled at the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation initiative agreed to by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is that it would enable India to rapidly expand its nuclear arsenal. This criticism rests upon two crucial assumptions: that New Delhi in fact seeks the largest nuclear weapons inventory its capacity and resources permit; and, the Indian desire for a larger nuclear arsenal has been stymied thus far by a shortage of natural uranium.
Atoms for War? U.S.-Indian Civilian Nuclear Cooperation and India’s Nuclear Arsenal by Ashley J. Tellis, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggests that both these assumptions are deeply flawed. To begin with, the study concludes that India is currently separating about 24-40 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium annually, far less than it has the capability to produce. This evidence, which suggests that the Government of India is in no hurry to build the biggest nuclear stockpile it could construct based on material factors alone, undermines the assumption that India wishes to build the biggest nuclear arsenal it possibly can.
Further, India’s capacity to produce a huge nuclear arsenal is not affected by prospective U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation. A few facts underscore this conclusion clearly. India is widely acknowledged to possess reserves of 78,000 metric tons of uranium (MTU). The forthcoming Carnegie study concludes that the total inventory of natural uranium required to sustain all the reactors associated with the current power program (both those operational and those under construction) and the weapons program over the entire notional lifetime of these plants runs into some 14,640-14,790 MTU—or, in other words, requirements that are well within even the most conservative valuations of India’s reasonably assured uranium reserves. If the eight reactors that India has retained outside of safeguards were to allocate 1/4 of their cores for the production of weapons-grade materials—the most realistic possibility for the technical reasons discussed at length in the forthcoming report—the total amount of natural uranium required to run these facilities for the remaining duration of their notional lives would be somewhere between 19,965-29,124 MTU. If this total is added to the entire natural uranium fuel load required to run India’s two research reactors dedicated to the production of weapons-grade plutonium over their entire life cycle—some 938-1088 MTU—the total amount of natural uranium required by India’s dedicated weapons reactors and all its unsafeguarded PHWRs does not exceed 20,903-30,212 MTU over the remaining lifetime of these facilities. Operating India’s eight unsafeguarded PHWRs in this way would bequeath New Delhi with some 12,135-13,370 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, which is sufficient to produce between 2,023-2,228 nuclear weapons over and above those already existing in the Indian arsenal.
The research in this report concludes that the total amount of natural uranium required to fuel all Indian reactors, on the assumption that eight of them would be used for producing weapons-grade materials in 1/4 of their cores, would be crudely speaking somewhere between 26,381 and 35,690 MTU over the remaining lives of all these facilities—a requirement that lies well within India’s assured uranium reserves howsoever these are disaggregated. In sum, India has the indigenous reserves of natural uranium necessary to undergird the largest possible nuclear arsenal it may desire and, consequently, the U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation initiative will not materially contribute towards New Delhi’s strategic capacities in any consequential way either directly or by freeing up its internal resources.
This conclusion notwithstanding, India does face a current shortage of natural uranium caused by constrictions in its mining and milling capacity. This deficit, however, represents a transient problem that is in the process of being redressed. It should be borne in mind that the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement proposed by President Bush does not in any way affect the Government of India’s ability to upgrade its uranium mines and milling facilities—as it is currently doing. All this implies that the shortages of uranium fuel experienced by India presently are a near-term aberration, and not an enduring limitation resulting from the dearth of physical resources. As such, they do not offer a viable basis either for Congress to extort any concessions from India in regards to its weapons program or for supporting the petty canard that imported natural uranium will lead to a substantial increase in the size of India’s nuclear weapons program.
Ashley J. Tellis is a senior associate specializing in international security, defense, and Asian strategic issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is co-author of Strategic Asia 2005-06: Military Modernization in an Era of Uncertainty.
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