Jeffrey LewisMore on the India 123

Apparently the State Department fact sheet on the US-India 123 Agreement doesn’t mention prior consent to reprocess spent fuel, although the Indian fact sheet does. Siddharth Varadarajan explains:

But it is in the U.S. and Indian descriptions of what the 123 agreement says about India’s right to reprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel that the differences are perhaps most consequential. India has highlighted the granting of “prior consent to reprocess nuclear material” and noted that to “bring this into effect” a national safeguarded reprocessing facility will be established and “the parties will agree on arrangements and procedures within one year.” The U.S. fact-sheet repeats this formulation without using the word “prior,” and also chooses not to highlight the fact that the 123 stipulates a concrete time frame for these arrangements to be worked out.

It is a bizarre thing for the State Department to try and hide, assuming this isn’t some massive form of denial about the huge hole in they blew in the nonproliferation regime. After all, of the tiny universe of people who understand reprocessing and why granting prior consent is significant, all will be quite aware of the actual provisions, fact sheet or no.

Anyway, the two fact sheets (India, USA) make for a fun read.

And by “fun” I mean “makes your eyes bleed from the sockets.”


  1. JY


    Why is “prior consent” such a bad thing if the reprocessing is going to be done in a safeguarded facility? I mean, look at the context of the deal. The big news is that this deal basically lets India keep its weapons program and reprocess Indian origin spent fuel in unsafeguarded facilities.

    What’s the big deal?

  2. Engineer Mike (History)

    For those interested in expanding the tiny universe of those who understand reprocessing and why granting prior consent is significant, a summary of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Act of 1978 is available here (tinyurl version of a Library of Congress link):

    Helps give the basis for the “prior consent” that Dr. Lewis mentions in the posting. There’s more to it, but the link above is a start.

  3. JY

    I repeat. Why is prior consent a big deal? If it is a matter of grave importance, can’t someone explain the reasons succinctly?

    My argument is that reprocessing is a part of the nuclear fuel cycle and as long as it is done in a designated civilian facility with all incoming and outgoing materials accounted for, there should be no concerns.

  4. Engineer Mike (History)

    The above link failed – I tied it to a temp file (sorry).

    Try this, it is a .pdf:

    Go to page 14 of 18 for a nice overview.

  5. Anon (History)

    JY basically asks why U.S. law—especially the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978—generally forbid importers of U.S.-origin nuclear fuel from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to get oh-so-weapons-usable plutonium? Well, that’s a fairly easy question to answer.

    To begin with, Uncle Sam, at least in the mid-to-late 1970s, decided that it did not want to encourage further the spread of weapons-usable plutonium or reprocessing technologies to non-nuclear-weapon States— especially after its experience, a-hem, with India earlier in the decade. (President Ford’s April 1976 statement, President Carter’s October 1977 statement, and the NNPA of 1978—all illustrate the relative sincerity of this decision.)

    You see, India flagrantly violated the terms of its nuclear cooperation agreements with the U.S. and Canada when it used the imported CIRUS reactor and heavy water to generate fissile material for its Smiling Buddha nuclear explosive device test of May 1974.

    What’s worse, Indian officials, often (though not always) with the straightest of faces, attempted to explain away violations of their nuclear cooperation agreements with the U.S. and Canada by describing Smiling Buddha as a “peaceful” nuclear explosion. Such words, being so pregnant with meaning, most certainly assured not only American and Canadian officials, but also India’s neighbors; of what, however, I will leave you all free to infer.

    Today, although India is a de facto nuclear weapons State (NWS), it is not a de jure NWS. Not only U.S. law, but also international law, view India as a non-nuclear-weapons State. So this, in part, explain the hesitancy among some in the U.S. to make an exception in U.S. law, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) for India—especially when the Chinese quietly suggest that a exception be made in the NSG not only for India, but also for Pakistan, another de facto NWS. Indeed, officials from North Korea, the world’s newest de facto NWS, now whisper to Six Party-diplomats their fond desire to be treated just like the Indians.

    Now, as for the extent to which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can effectively safeguard reprocessing, not only at pilot-scale but also when undertaken at bulk-handling facilities, you all may profit by visiting, inter alia, Marvin Miller’s 1990 article, Paul Leventhal’s 1994 article, Victor Gilinsky, Marvin Miller and Harmon Hubbard’s 2004 study, Ed Lyman’s 2005 essay, and Tom Cochran’s 2005 essay.

    As most of you well know, the objective of IAEA safeguards is to detect and provide timely warning of diversions of nuclear material and, by so doing, deter diversions. But as many of you may perhaps not know, and as these writings ably suggest, IAEA safeguarding activities often have a hard time meeting this lofty goal, especially at bulk-handling facilities or when dealing with direct-use nuclear materials (e.g., plutonium) that can be quickly converted for use in a nuclear explosive device or weapon.

    Indeed, the conversion time can be a little as a few weeks or even days. In contrast, due to the IAEA’s materials accountancy methods and astonishingly lax “false alarm of detection” probability of five percent, it can take the IAEA months—even years—to conclude definitively that, in retrospect, a diversion did occur.

    The word “safeguard” is thrown around by governments as though, by merely mentioning it, we will certainly assure that civilian nuclear materials, technologies and activities are not diverted and used to further weapons-purposes or purposes unknown. In reality, however, such assurances are far, far from certain.

  6. JY

    Okay, I get it now.

    However, if IAEA safeguards on reprocessing are useless, then no NNWS should get reprocessing consent, right? If Japan and EU get it then why not India? If I recall, the express intent of the July 18 deal was to find a way to fit India’s nuclear weapon reality into international norms. The moment NSG clears India trade, India’s NPT NNWS status becomes moot IMO.

    I get the point about India’s 1974 record but if I recall correctly, few NWS have a clean slate. The US, I believe, supported nuclear trade with China even after Chinese NPT violations vis-a-vis Pakistan were discovered. Chalk it up to yet another case of politics trumping paper rules.

    To put it simply, if people can accept the broader India-US nuclear deal idea, then reprocessing seems to be a minor quibble.

  7. ABC (History)

    Peaceful uses of nuclear explosives or PNE is permitted by treaty that India signed with the US in 1956 and the LTBT of 1963 which India is also a signatory to. A PNE is generally less than 150KT. The problem is who defines exactly what a PNE is? The definition of PNE wasn’t established until 1976, but before then PNEs were used for dams and mining for decades by the US and Russia and the 1976 agreement wasn’t part of what India signed up to.

    The problem with the Non- Proliferation Ayatollahs (NPA) group is that they didn’t like it when India exposed their hypocrisy.

    India has 3000Kg of weapons grade Pu to make hundreds of bombs, but won’t because its the wrong thing to do.


    I wish people like Dr. Lewis would commend India and the Bush administration for being so brave to bring India inside the non-proliferation agenda.

  8. manoj joshi (History)

    The points are well taken.As for the Smiling Buddha, you have to look at the letter and the spirit of the agreements. India violated the latter, but not perhaps the former. But currently India already has a robust reprocessing capability and has no incentive to cheat.

  9. CKR (History)

    Has any other agreement allowed reprocessing by countries receiving nuclear fuel from others? Seems to me that Russia and France always want their fuel back for reprocessing.

  10. JY

    For the long run, I feel that there should be more international cooperation to develop a closed cycle for nuclear energy. For this, reprocessing is a necessary step.

    If the best minds from across the worlds are pooled, as in the ITER, to design and develop a closed cycle, then we will not have tons of spent fuel needing disposal. The world would be safer.

    I feel that the nuclear community in the West seems too focused on technology denial rather than knowledge pooling. Ideas get out sooner or later. It is better to embrace this rather than hoard knowledge.