Canada-India uranium deal will spur proliferation, experts warn

Arms control experts say the decision to allow India to buy uranium from Canada - even though it has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - will encourage other countries to break the rules.

Arms control experts say Canada sends the wrong signal to countries that play by the rules

India tests nuclear-capable missile RAW

8 years ago
Duration 0:28
India test-fires a nuclear-capable Agni-III ballistic missile from an island in the Bay of Bengal, hours after signing a deal with Canada to buy uranium.

India test-fired a nuclear-capable ballistic missile Thursday, just hours after signing a deal to buy 3,000 tons of Canadian uranium.

The Agni-III missile, which has a range of over 3,000 kilometres, was fired from the Indian army's test range on Wheeler Island in the Bay of Bengal. India declared the test a success.

It's a sign of India's confidence that — with the help of Canada — it has finally left behind its status as a rogue nuclear nation and become an accepted member of the nuclear arms establishment.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week welcomed the uranium deal.

"Part of what has made this possible is the nuclear cooperation agreement that our governments concluded a couple of years back, which really allowed us to turn the page, as you know, on what had been, in our judgment, an unnecessarily frosty relationship for way too long," Harper said at a joint press conference with visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wave to the crowd in Toronto Wednesday. India signed a five-year agreement to buy Canadian uranium this week, concluding years of negotiations to supply India with the sensitive material. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

While the terms of this week's deal are not public, the nuclear cooperation agreement, first announced in 2010 and finalized in 2013, includes assurances that India use Canadian material for civilian purposes only.

"Canadian uranium can only be exported to facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The IAEA verifies that nuclear material is only used for strictly peaceful, non-explosive purposes," Natural Resouces Alain Cacchione said in an email to CBC News.

But some nuclear proliferation experts say India has been able to make such a deal without abiding by the rules set out for most other countries that abide by the international non-proliferation regime. And they warn that countries the West has been attempting to bring into the rules-based system — such as Iran — will be less inclined to submit when they see the rules don't apply to India.

Canadian technology used to gain bomb

India shocked the world when it conducted its first nuclear test in 1974. By then, the world had already grown used to the idea of an established club of nuclear nations, the same five that held permanent seats at the UN Security Council: the U.S., the Soviet Union, China, Britain and France.

Israel and South Africa had already succeeded in developing nuclear weapons by working together, but neither country had tested them and their nuclear arsenals were still a well-kept secret.

It was a bedrock principle of international security that no new nation should be allowed to join the nuclear weapons club.

The Indian blast would set off an arms race on the subcontinent that culminated in a nuclear test by Pakistan in 1998. Today, the sub-continent is considered one of the most likely flashpoints for a future nuclear conflict.

The scene of India's first underground nuclear explosion in Pokharan in the Indian state of Rajasthan is shown in this May, 1974 file photo. (Reuters)

Of particular concern to the rest of the world was that India developed its bomb using nuclear material from a reactor it had acquired from Canada ostensibly for civilian use.

The world responded to India's 1974 test by creating the Nuclear Suppliers Group, with Canada as a founding member. The aim was to prevent nuclear material from reaching rogue nuclear weapons states.

Today, that regime is in shreds, says Canada's former permanent representative to the Geneva Disarmament Conference, Paul Meyer.

"All of this flows from decisions where we essentially sold the shop some years back, sacrificing our nuclear non-proliferation principles and objectives for some other considerations, and I think it's been a very poor deal for us in terms of the risks of nuclear proliferation," he said in an interview with CBC News from The Hague.

Then-U.S. president George W. Bush began India's rehabilitation in 2008, when the U.S. signed a nuclear accord with India. Under the deal, India would formally split its nuclear programs into civilian and military branches, and U.S. companies would be allowed to do business with the civilian ones. In return, India agreed to put some of its civilian facilities under IAEA inspection, but others remained outside the inspections regime, as did the weapons program.

'A capitulation'

"There was a capitulation in 2008 to essentially give India all of the benefits of membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, without any of its obligations or responsibilities," says Meyer.

But even though India was clearly on the road to nuclear respectability, it still had no reliable supplier of uranium.

With the Canadian agreement, India effectively joins the five permanent Security Council members whose arsenals are recognized and grandfathered by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — a treaty that India has still not signed.

Only three other countries do not subscribe to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

Arms control experts say Canada's uranium will end up fuelling the Indo-Pakistani arms race, directly or indirectly.

Even if Canadian uranium is used only for civilian purposes, "whatever uranium India produces domestically will now be freed up for a military program," says Greg Koblentz of George Mason University in Washington.

"There's been a tremendous amount of effort invested in preventing Iran from obtaining one nuclear weapon, but this has really left the arms race in South Asia unchecked," he told CBC Radio's The Current this week.

Some experts fear Canada appears to be selling India uranium with fewer controls and conditions than it typically demands from NNPT member countries that do play by the rules.

"Normally there's some sort of tracking and accounting system so that Canada would be receiving information from India very specifically about what Canada-sourced material is being used for," says Trevor Findlay, a senior research fellow at Harvard University's Managing the Atom project.

"In this case, because the agreement [to buy the uranium] is secret, we have no idea whether that's in place, and it probably isn't because the Indians have been pushing against that," he told The Current.

Findlay and other experts warn that the special treatment for India shows other governments a country can ignore the rules, build the bomb, tough it out for a few decades and emerge on the other side as an accepted nuclear weapons power.

Already, Pakistan says the deals give India a strategic advantage, and Pakistan has blocked preliminary talks on the most important arms control initiative in years: a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty that would ban future production of weapons-grade material.