NSG bid: Not Pakistan, China was driven by its own nuclear trade interest
India's failure to get into the NSG has been analysed over many reams of paper. Much of this analysis has focused on geopolitics - more specifically on China's attempt to "hyphenate" India and Pakistan in the realm of nuclear power developments. But are Chinese planners, who are reputed for thinking long-term, really so stuck on the issue of sub-continental politics?
A small section of informed Indian analysts believes the "real" reason for Chinese intransigence on blocking India's entry into the "elite" club is the logic of business: Beijing is working to corner a big chunk of the global nuclear commerce and letting India join the NSG would hurt such plans.
According to a report prepared by IAEA's director general in 2010, all 22 nuclear reactors that had been begun to be constructed in 2008 were in just three countries - China, South Korea and Russia.
The same report had this interesting detail: China set up its first fast breeder reactor in 2010. India, on the other hand, saw its fast breeder test reactor go critical - that's achieve nuclear fission reaction - way back in 1985. India, in fact, is the only country besides Russia that is planning to begin commercial production of fast breeder reactors.
A top expert on India's sensitive material export control programmes put this in context: "Primarily, our NSG membership is driven by the nuclear energy suppliers of the West. But since India has Full Scope Safeguards waiver from the NSG, sponsored by the West, nuclear commerce to be garnered from New Delhi is not for supplies to India. It's actually for seamlessly using Indian manufacturing of quality proven - Calandrias from L&T - for integration into their global supply chains."
In simpler terms, Western nuclear suppliers want to manufacture quality equipment cheaply in India and then sell it elsewhere.
The nuclear material made in India is highly competitively priced. China is the only other nation that could offer such low prices but two key problems with their programme give India an advantage. One, Chinese capability in handling the tricky nuclear fuel cycles for controlled fission is questionable, and two, their reactor engineering has been found to be rather shoddy.
Also, when it comes to the three-stage plan for nuclear power development, involving Uranium 235, Plutonium 244 and Thorium 232, China is weak in the processing of Pu-244 and Th-232. India has mastered the processing of Plutonium, and its Uranium processing is also quite high.
Evidently, if India enters the NSG and the "barn door is closed" after that, to paraphrase former foreign minister Jaswant Singh, the "seamless" integration of the country into the Western nuclear supply chain becomes easier - to the detriment of China.
Nuclear energy being price sensitive, low-cost fast breeder and pressurised heavy water reactors bring down the effective cost of power generated. India is also working with mixed oxide fuel, which contains a mix of 5% recycled irradiated Plutonium with depleted U-235.
According to the World Nuclear Association newsletter, China "still relies to some extent on foreign suppliers for all stages of the fuel cycle, from uranium mining through fabrication and reprocessing, but mostly for uranium supply." So, an import-dependent China won't let India into the NSG lest New Delhi become a more important player than Beijing in the global nuclear supply chain.
That India holds an edge over China in nuclear research and technology is coming to light only now, thanks to the Indo-US nuclear deal which made it mandatory for New Delhi to declassify significant parts of its work. Until the deal was signed, India's nuclear R&D remained under a shroud of secrecy. In fact, as nuclear non-proliferation expert George Perkovich has stated, the secrets of India's nuclear programme were held by a small community of scientists "belonging to a certain region and mostly the same caste".