South Asians Against Nukes - 27 May 2009


[Posted below is an essay that appeared in three parts in the Bangladesh daily New Age on 24, 25 and 26th May 2009. It is reproduced here in public interest and for non commercial use]

A different perspective on US-India nuclear deal

The US-India nuclear deal is bound to result in huge quantities of extremely dangerous waste that cannot be sold on the market, but needs to be put aside, at great risks to humans and to our natural environment

by Dr Peter Custers

THE US-India nuclear deal was initiated through a framework agreement signed by Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and US president George W Bush in July 2005. Under this initial statement, India agreed to separate its civilian and military nuclear production facilities, and place all civilian production facilities under the inspection regime of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The nuclear deal, which took three years to complete, officially aims at promoting India’s access to uranium and to civilian nuclear technology, through enlarged importation of both. Whereas nuclear energy contributed a reported 2.5 percent of India’s energy requirements in 2007, the deal is expected to boost the contribution of the nuclear sector to India’s electricity supply – without reducing India’s primary dependence on coal. From its very start, the US-India nuclear deal has generated huge controversies, both in India and internationally.

   This essay discusses the hazardous and wasteful implications of the US-India nuclear deal beyond its implications for the nuclear arms race in the subcontinent. Most of the key objections against the deal that have been put forward by progressive opponents of the deal in India and internationally have addressed the fact that it legitimises India’s status as a nuclear weapons state, and that it will enable India to expand its production of weapons’ grade plutonium. Already, India is estimated to possess a sufficient amount of plutonium for the manufacturing of at least a hundred atomic bombs. Since India reportedly has agreed to place only 14 out of its 22 civilian reactors under the IAEA’s inspection regime, it is free to produce in the remaining 8 reactors another 200 kilograms of weapons’ grade plutonium per year (see Praful Bidwai, ‘Manmohan’s False Nuclear Move’, July 19, 2008,; also Zia Mian and MV Ramana, ‘Going MAD: Ten Years of the Bomb in South Asia, July 29, 2008, Thus, fears that the controversial deal will enhance the danger of a nuclear conflagration in South Asia appear to be well-grounded, even if we leave aside all other interrelated objections that have been raised.

   In this essay, the spotlights will not be put on India’s past and future plans for production of weapons grade plutonium and nuclear bombs, but on two other major questions. For the US-India nuclear deal needs to be also and fiercely questioned with regard to its ostensible aims, i.e. the vast expansion in the production of nuclear energy. Whereas a more then 10-fold increase in generation of nuclear energy, as foreseen, may help to overcome India’s rapidly growing energy needs, the side-effects in terms of generation of nuclear waste are so ponderous, that from this perspective too, implementation of the deal needs to be pre-empted. Moreover, as reported briefly in India’s national press in September last, when the signing of the deal was being debated, there is a little discussed ‘reverse side’ to the nuclear deal, being the US’s additional commercial objectives relating to its arms exports. For the US is poised to lobby aggressively so as to capture a larger share of India’s arms imports than it has held up until now.

   The conceptual approach proposed so as to address these combined issued is a holistic view on waste. In this view, processes of manufacturing that result in military commodities, i.e. in weaponry, basically need to be analysed as processes that result in wastage of economic resources. This, for instance, is the case where economic policymakers deciding to purchase armament systems do not primarily have in mind security considerations, but macroeconomic stimulation of domestic demand for goods.

   However, this, the production of ‘social waste’, generally does not stand alone, but needs to be juxtaposed with the generation of ‘non-commodity waste’ during the same industrial processes. Whereas conventional economics discusses these side-effects of industrial manufacturing under the heading of ‘externalities’, in this essay the term non-commodity waste will be used, whenever reference will be made to the ecologically harmful by-products of industrial manufacturing (a precursor of the concept of non-commodity waste is the term ‘discommodities’ coined by the Marginalist Jevons but largely ignored by other economists of his time and subsequently; see W Stanley Jevons, The Theory of Political Economy, Macmillan and Co, London, United Kingdom, 1879, p 62).

   Whereas ‘social’ waste and ‘non-commodity’ waste are rarely juxtaposed in public debate, the US nuclear deal and its reverse side offer an occasion to do precisely this. As the below cited data on the generation of waste in the nuclear production chain show, the US-India nuclear deal is bound to result in huge quantities of extremely dangerous waste that cannot be sold on the market, but needs to be put aside, at great risks to humans and to our natural environment. Again, the importation of expensive armament systems entails the waste of vast economic resources that could be used towards relieving India’s persistent mass poverty, hence should be considered importation of social waste. Moreover, the issues of ‘social’ and ‘non-commodity’ waste can also be posed in relation to the manufacturing of weapons’ grade plutonium and atomic weapons, where generation of the two given forms of waste occurs simultaneously (for a full discussion, see Peter Custers, Questioning Globalised Militarism, Nuclear and Military Production and Critical Economic Theory, Tulika Publishers, New Delhi, India, 2007).

   The nuclear deal: importation of nuclear technology and importation of US armament systems

   AS STARTING point for my discussion I will take two newspaper articles published in the Times of India on September 11 last. One of these highlighted the business prospects of the US-India nuclear deal via the sale of nuclear production technology, and via the importation and the construction of nuclear reactors in India. The second article discussed the aspiration of the US in terms of expanded exports of armament systems to India. To take the article on plans for expansion of nuclear energy production first, it spoke very glowingly about the size of business that will be generated, mentioning a figure of $40 billion worth of orders Indian and foreign enterprises stand to receive, and hailing the deal as a ‘project’ having a financial size of Rs 2.4 lakh crore (lakh and crore are numerical figures commonly used in accounting in South Asia; one lakh refers to a hundred thousand and one crore signifies ten million). Under the deal, a reported 24 light-water reactors will be imported from abroad and installed along India’s coasts. India plans to build a further 12 indigenous nuclear plants, consisting of pressurised heavy water reactors. At no point in the article are the implications of the nuclear deal in terms of generation of additional nuclear waste discussed (Srinivas Laxman, ‘N-Trade: It’s a $40 Billion Opportunity’, Times of India, New Delhi, September 11, 2008, p 15; for other estimates regarding the business prospects of the deal, see J Sri Raman, ‘How India’s “Waiver” Has Won’, (September 9, 2008,!

   In another article published in the Times of India on the very same day, the secondary objectives of the US, which traditionally is not a major seller of military hardware to India, are described. The article delineates the huge size of India’s overall arms’ imports. It states that since the Kargil conflict, India has spent a ‘whopping’ $25 billion on imports of weaponry. The country is ‘poised’ to spend another $30 billion on such purchases over the next 5-6 years. Thus, the US is vying to capture a whole series of arms orders which India intends to place on the world market for arms. Indian import plans reportedly include a $170 million plan for the buying of anti-ship Harpoon missiles, a Rs 42,000-crore project for the purchase of multi-role combat aircraft, and purchases of 197 light utility and observation helicopters worth another Rs 3,000 crore. A deal mentioned that has already been clinched, and has been sent for approval to US Congress, is the arms deal – described as India’s ‘biggest ever’ with the US – for the purchase of 8 Boeing reconnaissance aircraft, estimated to cost no less than Rs 8,500 Crore. At no point in the article is it explained that such lavish spending on arms imports represents a form of social waste, and that the same financial resources could well be spent on alleviating the massive poverty that still exists in India (Rajat Pandit, ‘In Defence, US Wants to be India’s Partner No 1’, Times of India, New Delhi, September 11, 2008, p 13).

OFFICIALLY, of course, the US-India nuclear deal and the listed plans to import armaments are no interconnected issues. The arms purchases do not directly form part of the agreement surrounding importation of nuclear technology. And yet it is probably correct to see the US’s hopes to overtake other foreign suppliers of arms to India as a reverse side of the nuclear deal, as was indeed hinted at in the article of the Times of India. In any case, juxtaposition of the two issues enables us to look more holistically at the wasteful implications of the Indian government’s behaviour, than a focus on the US-India nuclear deal alone would allow us to do. Hence, below I am going to address both the generation of nuclear waste that will occur in consequence of the nuclear deal, and India’s arms imports, in order to show the full extent of waste creation that is involved.
   The generation of hazardous waste in the nuclear production chain

   LET’S take the issue of nuclear waste generation first. I do not possess comprehensive data on the nuclear waste that has been generated by nuclear production in India so far. Nor am I in a position to give a precise assessment regarding the waste that importation and construction of new reactors will result in. However, the experience of nuclear production worldwide is unequivocal: nuclear waste emerges at each and every link in the nuclear production chain, starting from the very first stage, i.e. that of uranium mining and milling, and lasting up to the stage where nuclear fuel elements are treated in reprocessing facilities. An important source for my own understanding of these issues is the book ‘Nuclear Wastelands’, written by a group of scientists led by the US-based Indian academician Arjun Makhijani, which book primarily reviews waste generation by nuclear-military production facilities (Arjun Makhijani, Howard Hu and Katherine Yih (eds.), Nuclear Wastelands: A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and its Health and Environmental Effects, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 1995). From this and other sources, I have selected three cases of waste generation, namely: the waste tailings that emerge when uranium is mined and milled; depreciated fuel elements which themselves are a form of nuclear waste; and the high-level waste that needs to be put aside when former nuclear fuel elements are reprocessed.

   Uranium mining is, of course, the very first stage in the whole nuclear production chain. As known, such mining is also undertaken in India, and would likely be intensified in consequence of the US-India nuclear deal. When uranium ore is mined and uranium is prepared and enriched, towards employment as raw material for making nuclear fuel elements, a truly huge amount of hazardous material in the form of mill tailings is left behind, tailings which do contain radioactive substances and are therefore hazardous for humans and for nature. Speaking in volume terms, these tailings reportedly constitute 95 per cent of all the nuclear waste that is generated in the nuclear production chain. Among the radioactive substances found in mill tailings are for instance radium-226 and thorium-230, the latter radioactive element has a half-life of 76,000 years, meaning that it will take that many years before half of the radioactivity contained in the thorium will have decayed. In mining uranium and in creating the tailings, capitalist entrepreneurs are not just burdening our children and grandchildren with the consequences of uranium extraction, but entire future generations, and such for an almost indefinite period of time. The damaging consequences of uranium mining have been recorded well in the US, where nuclear production was historically started. Here, tailing dams have turned into slurry after downpours of rain. Between 1955 and 1977 a total of fifteen tailing dams have broken. In one such case, the river Rio Puerco was flooded with 94 million gallons of tailing liquids, resulting in contamination of a long stretch of the river (Katherine Yih, Albert Donnay, Annalee Yassi, A.James Ruttenber and Scott Saleska, ‘Uranium Mining and Milling for Military Purposes´, in Arjun Makhijani, Howard Hu and Katherine Yih, 1995, op-cit, p 121).

   Another stage in the nuclear production chain known to generate dangerous waste is the stage where nuclear energy is generated in reactors. Surely, the production of nuclear energy can be seen as a contribution to human welfare, if purely looked at from the perspective of energy generation. Yet the hazardous implications from employment of the nuclear fuel rods in the reactors are multifarious. A section of the rods needs to be taken out regularly, as the nuclear fuel elements can be utilised for only three years. Now in the parlance of economic theory the fuel elements once taken out are considered ‘depreciated means of production’. They are presumed to have lost all the value that has been transferred to the new commodity, the nuclear energy. Yet, the fuel elements undoubtedly are a form of hazardous waste. Speaking in quantitative terms, the size of this waste seems small. Yet the radioactivity contained in the spent fuel elements is truly intense. The radioactive elements present in this nuclear waste include uranium, strontium-90, caesium-137 and plutonium. Of these, plutonium is entirely the outcome of human production; as such, it does not exist in nature. It is known to be the very most toxic substance on earth, its half-life being exceedingly long. The half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,400 years, that of plutonium-242 as much as 380,000 years. Even microgram quantities of plutonium, when inhaled by humans, are known to result in fatal cancers (for details on the health and environmental hazards of plutonium production and use, see notably Frank Barnaby, ‘Nuclear Legacy: Democracy in a Plutonium Economy’, Cornerhouse Briefing Paper No 2, Sturminster, Newton, United Kingdom, November 1997)). Hence, the expansion in construction and utilisation of nuclear reactors worldwide is a reason for grave concerns. Each additional nuclear reactor generates spent nuclear fuel rods containing different forms of high-level waste.

   The third distinct stage in the chain of nuclear production I wish to refer to, is the stage of reprocessing. For decades, policymakers in the west have tried to make the public believe that they had solved the above-sketched issue of dangerous waste, i.e. the issue of spent fuel elements. They did so by arguing that these fuel rods can well be reprocessed, i.e. they may be treated chemically in reprocessing facilities so as to allow for re-use of the uranium and to pave the way for use of the fresh plutonium for ‘productive’ ends, towards the manufacturing of new fuel elements. Yet it is at the stage of reprocessing that problems really pile up. First, it is at this stage that high-level waste comes into being as a distinct category of waste, since the chemical treatment of the fuel rods does not only help to separate out uranium and plutonium, but also results in high-level waste that needs to be put aside. This counts for uranium-236, to be distinguished from uranium-235, incorporated in the fuel elements. Uranium-236, mind you, has a half-life of 24.2 million years. Again, there is the radioactive element jodium-129 which has a half-life of 15.7 million years. These are time-scales which as humans we are hardly able to imagine, but which make the consequences of nuclear production that much graver. The high-level waste in liquid form put aside after chemical treatment of the fuel rods is commonly stored in tanks.

   Now, the risks involved in such storage can be visualised through the accidents that have taken place in nuclear-military production facilities in both the US and the former Soviet Union. The Hanford nuclear complex in the US is the complex where the US used to manufacture its military plutonium. Here, high-level waste in liquid form was stored in 117 stainless steel tanks, each containing half a million gallons of waste. In 1973, a leak was discovered which had caused massive dissipation of radioactivity into Hanford’s subsoil (see on the leakages of nuclear waste at the Hanford complex, Arjun Makhijani and Scott Saleska, ‘The Production of Nuclear Weapons and Environmental Hazards’, in Arjun Makhijani, Howard Hu and Katherine Yih, 1995, op-cit, p 44). But the most dramatic example of an accident with high-level radioactive waste has been reported from the former Soviet Union. In the Cheliabinsk complex, a military-nuclear complex located in the Ural Mountains, a tank explosion occurred in 1957. The government of the then USSR suppressed the news of the accident in name of guarding ‘state secrets’, but Soviet scientists unravelled the accident long before the Gorbachev government instituted an enquiry. Just as in Hanford, the high-level waste from the reprocessing in Cheliabinsk was stored in stainless steel tanks, located in a canyon-shaped area eight metres under the soil surface. Yet the explosion in Cheliabinsk‘s tanks resulted in a massive leakage of radioactivity. A reported 22 million curies of radioactivity were released, 2 million curies in the form of a plume that reached a height of one kilometre above the Cheliabinsk complex. The explosion and the releases of radioactivity destroyed entire ecosystems in the surrounding region. Villages had to be evacuated, rivers and lakes were polluted, and the government had to take draconian measures to contain the danger of the accident for the region’s ecology (on the Cheliabinsk catastrophe, see Zhores Medvedev, Nuclear Disaster in the Urals, Vintage Books, London, United Kingdom, 1980; also Arjun Makhijani, Howard Hu and Katherine Yih, 1995, op-cit, p 335).

   Above I have simply summarised data on selected aspects of nuclear waste generation, focusing on waste tailings from uranium mining and milling, on the waste represented by spent nuclear fuel elements, and on the high-level waste that is put aside whenever nuclear fuel rods are reprocessed. Surely, given the risks they represent for humans and for nature surrounding us, there is no way one can belittle the occurrence of multiple wastes in the nuclear production chain. Nor can one deny the validity of posing the consequences of the US-India nuclear deal in these terms.
   India as importer of weapons systems: question of disparate exchange

   I WILL now turn to the second form of waste I have spoken of in the introduction to this essay, namely waste in the social sense of the term. As said, here I will focus on the reverse side of the US-India nuclear deal which is the US’s eagerness to expand its arms’ sales to India. In this context it is worth recalling the fact that India today heads the list of Southern importers of armament systems. Whereas in the past this position was held by the Middle Eastern oil giant Saudi Arabia, India has meanwhile displaced the latter country as leading Southern importer, along with China. This may be illustrated with concrete figures.

ACCORDING to a report brought out by the US-based Congressional Research Service, in 2005 India ranked first among developing nations weapons purchasers, in terms of the market value of agreements signed to import weaponry. Further, whereas the total value of southern arms imports in this year was $30 billion, the value of the agreements concluded by India alone was $5.4 billion, meaning that India was set to swallow fully one sixth of the total (Richard Grimmett, ‘Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1998-2005, Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress, Washington, USA, October 23, 2006). While these data could be biased, they are in fact corroborated by data which have been compiled by the respectable Stockholm-based peace research institute SIPRI. In its 2007 annual report, SIPRI offers comprehensive figures for the value of arms imports by individual southern states over a period of 30 years. Again, India heads the list of these totals. This of course does not imply that India has been the leading southern importer in each and every year. But it does signify that the accumulated arms imports of India have been so big over the last decade as to make up for the comparatively ‘smaller’ size of arms imports in earlier decades (for SIPRI´s most recent data, see Paul Holtom, Mark Bromley and Pieter D.Wezeman, ‘International Arms Transfers’, Chapter 7 of the SIPRI Yearbook 2008: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, Stockholm, Sweden, 2008, p 293).

   Now, the role which arms transfers between north and south hold in the world economy can be assessed from either a southern or a northern perspective. If looked at from a southern perspective, one has to reflect on India’s arms imports in terms of disparate exchange. The term disparate exchange expresses the fact that southern economies, when importing armament systems from the north, are losers. Whereas they import military commodities which from a social point of view should be considered waste, the northern states which export the armaments are benefactors, for they directly or indirectly transfer the arms in exchange for raw materials, semi-finished goods and labour-intensive commodities representing wealth. This is indeed a form of international exchange which may be characterised as disparate (as opposed to unequal) exchange, since there is a qualitative difference between the commodities flowing in parallel between northern and southern trade ‘partners’. Although in certain cases the inter-linkages between exported and imported goods are explicit (notably in case of barter agreements where crude oil is exchanged against weaponry), more generally processes of disparate exchange are less easy to pinpoint, i.e. they are indirectly interlinked (an exposition regarding the trading mechanism of disparate exchange between north and south is stated in Peter Custers (2007), op-cit, Part Three, Chapter Nineteen: ´Unequal Exchange versus Disparate Exchange. A Theoretical Comparison. Succession and Coexistence of Two Imperialist Trading Mechanisms’, p 309).

   To highlight the imperialist nature of this trading mechanism, it needs to be stated that the given trading mechanism was historically instituted by the United States. For when OPEC’s oil-exporting countries in the 1970s decided to take their fate in their own hands, by insisting on the right to fix the international price of crude oil, the US immediately tried to take advantage of the changing situation. It knew of course that increased prices of oil would inter alia result in additional dollar incomes for members of OPEC (for the views of US State Department officials regarding the implications of the historical price increases decided upon by OPEC in 1973, see Pierre Terzian, OPEC: The Inside Story, Zed Books, London, 1985). Hence it feverishly worked to channel such southern income towards additional southern imports of weapon systems from the US and other northern arms exporters, and with success (see e.g. Anthony Sampson, The Arms Bazaar, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1977; and Russell Warren Howe, Weapons. The Shattering Truth About the International Game of Power, Money and Arms, Abacus, London, 1980). Leading oil exporters, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, in the seventies were easily deluded into buying fighter planes and other expensive weaponry. These Middle Eastern countries right then headed the list of southern importers of weapons systems. Today, when India has emerged as a leading southern arms importer, the US is eager to expand its arms sales to India, at the expense of the country’s traditional suppliers of arms (for India’s primary dependence on arms supplies from Russia, see e.g. Paul Holtom, Mark Bromley and Pieter D Wezeman, 2008, op-cit, p 300). And whereas it needs to be assessed whether the exports of social waste from the US towards India will be undertaken at the expense of wealth belonging to India’s own population, or rather at the expense of wealth belonging to the people of India and other southern states combined, the arms transfers are bound to represent further cases of disparate exchange.

   India’s massive imports of armament systems can, however, also be analysed from a northern perspective. Here we need to highlight the fact that the hegemonic power in the world system, ever since the days of British imperialism, has used its leverage as dominant power to export weaponry as a part of macroeconomic policymaking. This is true in particular for the presently tottering hegemonic power, the US. Ever since the sixties of the previous century, the US has used its exports of armament systems as replacement mechanism, as supplement to ensure that American armament corporations at all times are supplied with orders sufficient in amount to protect their production capacity and guarantee accumulation. For instance, when the US government at the end of the 1980s needed to partly scale down the size of its orders towards monopoly corporations based in the US military sector, it heavily pushed military corporations into expanding their exports. It even employed the second Gulf war staged in 1991 towards this end. Moreover, the US Department of Defence, the Pentagon, itself embraces the economic logic behind armament exports. This is evident, for instance, from statements contained in its 2006 report to the US Congress, the Annual Industrial Capability Report. As the report states, ‘Defence exports play an important economic role in strengthening the US defence industrial base’; ‘about 20 per cent (sic) of US weapons systems items are exported…’; and ’sales to foreign customers have frequently been critical to keeping entire production lines open…’ (Office of the Undersecretary of Defence, Annual Industrial Capability Report, Pentagon, Washington DC, USA, February, 2006). Hence, it is difficult to interpret these sales as necessitated by the US’s ‘security’, when the Pentagon itself admits to the US Congress that the exports of armament systems represent a leverage for macroeconomic policymaking. The combined historical evidence for the past several decades indicates that exports play an active role towards solving dilemmas in connection with the US’s business cycle, driven as it largely is by military allocations.
   Conclusions: juxtaposing social waste and non-commodity waste

   As suggested, the US-India nuclear deal should be analysed in terms of wasteful implications which the deal is set to have in two ways. If strictly looked at from a perspective of expanded production of nuclear energy in India, as is the official line of the Indian government, the deal already needs to be severely criticised. For it will undoubtedly result in vastly increased generation of nuclear waste, which from the standpoint of critical economic theory is to be considered non-commodity waste. Above I have not presented specific data on the waste which India’s own production of nuclear energy has generated in the past, but have concentrated on international data regarding the generation of waste at three stages in the nuclear production chain, i.e. the stage of uranium mining and milling, the stage of production in nuclear reactors, and the stage of reprocessing of nuclear fuel elements. These data unequivocally bring out that in assessing the implications of the US-India nuclear deal, the issue of nuclear waste needs to be taken on board.

   Yet if we are to assess the full extent of waste generation implied by the US-India nuclear deal, we also need to reflect on the reverse side of the deal. There needs to be, it seems, greater awareness of the fact that the US does not just intend to use the deal to promote the export of nuclear production technology towards India. The US also is keenly interested in greatly expanding its sales of armaments to India, in view of the fact that India is one of the global south’s leading arms importers, along with China. Here again, my data regarding the loss of wealth implied by these deals for India and the south are incomplete. Thus, further research on Indian armament imports should bring out how they express disparate exchange. They may lead to loss of wealth for the people of India alone – or ultimately lead to replication of disparate exchange via parallel exports of conventional arms by India to other countries of the global South. In any case, such research would have to focus on the precise way in which foreign currency towards payment of these imports is generated. In order to make a holistic assessment of the US-India nuclear deal and the mentioned arms deals, we need to juxtapose ‘non-commodity’ waste and ‘social’ waste.

   Dr Peter Custers is a campaigner-theoretician based in Leiden, Netherlands

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