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'Cut off fissile material production in South Asia'

Written by: Staff

Washington, May 10 : As a legislation on the landmark Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement is being considered by the United States Congress, two experts have suggested that the top law making body should give approval only after extracting a commitment from both India and Pakistan to completely cut off fissile material production in South Asia.

''If handled correctly, the agreement could create the conditions for engaging India and Pakistan in a new and constructive dialogue aimed at significantly strengthening the protection of their fissile material and nuclear facilities,'' Kenneth N Luongo and Isabelle Williams said writing in the Arms Control Association (ACA) magazine.

Given the unprecedented nature of this agreement and the dramatic change it would represent in United States non-proliferation policy, they said ''the ideal trade-off for Congressional approval would be a complete cut off of fissile material production in South Asia''.

Luongo is executive director of the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council (RANSAC), an independent, non-governmental organization dedicated to the effective control and elimination of weapons of mass destruction, and Williams the organization's consultant on Globalizing Threat Reduction Project.

Saying that India-US civilian nuclear agreement has raised many legitimate questions about the future of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the experts felt that the intense debate about the potential negative effects of the agreement, however, has blinded many to the opening that it has created to bolster nuclear material security in South Asia.

They say that since there is robust opposition in India and Pakistan to a cut off at this time, a necessary and achievable alternative would be to mandate that India engage in a serious dialogue about improving fissile material and facility security.

Requiring a discussion of security improvements and successfully implementing them would likely prove to be a touchy issue in New Delhi. Both the Bush administration and the Indian government have called for Congressional approval of this agreement without conditions.

Yet, given the post-September 11 importance of achieving the highest levels of fissile material security, it would be difficult for any responsible nuclear state to deny such a request, especially if it were handled in a way that minimized Indian domestic sensitivities, they said.

In their opinion if India, ''which is very clear about proclaiming itself as a responsible nuclear power, accepted the idea,'' it would join Pakistan, which has already begun a quiet dialogue with the United States on nuclear security improvements.

The two sets of discussions could then potentially move in parallel and at a rapid pace. The confirmation of the actual security improvements would represent a concrete step forward in South Asian nuclear security and thereby balance out some of the troublesome security implications of the nuclear pact, Luongo and Williams said.

Procedurally, such a nuclear security dialogue could be mandated by the attachment of a condition to any legislation approving the agreement or be proposed as a pre-condition to approval for its full implementation, they said.

There is a precedent for such a requirement. Conditions were imposed on the Sino-US nuclear cooperation agreement and implementation was delayed for almost 13 years while China made progress towards meeting them.

This initiative could be undertaken by the United States, other advanced nuclear states in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), or through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but the method is less important than the end result.

If the India-US agreement is approved by the Congress and backed by the NSG without a serious attempt having been made to intensify cooperation with India and Pakistan on nuclear protection beyond the IAEA safeguards contemplated under the agreement or currently in place, it would amount to an enormous missed opportunity to improve global security, they said.

Luongo and Williams said India and Pakistan, two countries with extensive and growing fissile material stockpiles, now are largely outside the scope of international security standards, and their own nuclear material security practices are opaque.

Unfortunately, the agreement does not include any conditions for India to strengthen its nuclear security standards beyond introducing IAEA safeguards on a limited number of declared civilian facilities. As the IAEA itself acknowledges, safeguards provide only a firewall against nuclear terrorism and it is the responsibility of the States to ensure the adequacy of their fissile material safety.

This should include all locations where fissile material may be stored, including non-IAEA-safeguarded civilian and military facilities.

Therefore, an opportunity exists for the Congress to work in concert with the US administration and other international partners to shore up the agreement by requiring a dialogue that can concretely improve fissile material security in South Asia. Approval of the agreement without this adjunct dialogue and its concrete outcomes will result in a missed opportunity for the United States and for global security, Luongo and Williams said.


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