Paul Leventhal, Nuclear Control Institute

Presentation to

Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Washington, DC

December 19, 2005 


It is fair to say that were it were not for the CIRUS reactor---and the uncovering of the secret US role in supplying the heavy-water moderator that India used in the reactor to produce the plutonium for its 1974 test---there would not have been a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act.


There would not have been its statutory requirement for full-scope safeguards as a condition of nuclear supply. 


And there would not be today the international norm of comprehensive safeguards embodied in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which is based on the US law. 


So CIRUS holds a very special place in nonproliferation history and the development of US nonproliferation policy.  This needs to be understood if we are to do the right thing in working out a new nuclear relationship with India.

My own personal involvement in this history and policy began with a telephone call I received 31 years ago on a May morning in 1974 when I was a young staffer on the U.S. Senate Government Operations Committee. It was from a Congressional liaison officer of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission who said he was calling to inform me that India had just conducted a nuclear test and to assure me that "the United States had absolutely nothing to do with it."

At that time, I was working on legislation to reorganize the AEC into separate regulatory and promotional agencies. I had begun investigating the weapons potential of nuclear materials being used in the U.S. Atoms for Peace program, both at home and abroad. The official wanted me to know there was no need to consider remedial legislation on nuclear exports because the plutonium used in India's test came not from the safeguarded nuclear power plant at Tarapur, supplied by the United States, but from the unsafeguarded Cirus research reactor near Bombay, supplied by Canada. "This is a Canadian problem, not ours," he said.

It took me two years to discover that the information provided me that day was false. The United States, in fact, had supplied the essential heavy-water component that made the Cirus reactor operable, but decided to cover up the American supplier role and let Canada "take the fall" for the Indian test. Canada promptly cut off nuclear exports to India, but the United States did not.

In 1976, when the Senate committee uncovered the U.S. heavy-water export to India and confronted the State Department on it, the government's response was another falsehood: the heavy water supplied by the U.S., it said, had leaked from the reactor at a rate of 10% a year, and had totally depleted over 10 years by the time India produced the plutonium for its test.

But the committee learned from Canada that the actual heavy-water loss rate at Cirus was less than 1% a year, and we learned from junior-high-school arithmetic that even a 10%- a-year loss rate doesn't equal 100% after 10 years. Actually, more than 90% of the original U.S. heavy water was still in the Cirus reactor after 10 years, even if it took India a decade to produce the test plutonium---itself a highly fanciful notion.

We also learned that the reprocessing plant where India had extracted the plutonium from Cirus spent fuel, described as "indigenous" in official U.S. and Indian documents, in fact had been supplied by an elaborate and secret consortium of U.S. and European companies.

Faced with this blatant example of the Executive Branch taking Congress for the fool, the Senate committee drafted and Congress eventually enacted the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978.  And the rest, as they say, is history.


I am by no means convinced that we today need a new nuclear relationship with India, short of India formally committing to roll back its nuclear weapons, South Africa style, at such time as there’s a settlement with Pakistan on Kashmir---and committing also to join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state at that time. 


There seems to be little support for such an approach, and I’m sure much angst over even giving voice to such an impolitic proposal. 


So, for the moment at least, I will focus on the current push for a nuclear cooperation agreement with India, and the way the CIRUS reactor should be treated in it.


The prospective nuclear cooperation agreement will establish India as a de facto nuclear weapons state, which is just as good as a de jure nuclear weapons state if de facto status comes without penalties and with full access to imported nuclear reactors, fuel and fuel-cycle technology. 


This would be a sweet deal for India, but a body blow to the non-proliferation regime, so-called. 


Country specialists in the US always seem willing to sacrifice non-proliferation on the altar of normalized relations with the country in question.  This has been especially so for India. 


Victor Gilinsky and I discussed this problem in an op-ed article we co-authored in the Washington Post soon after the Indian tests of 1998.  We noted that “[i]n the history of U.S.-India relations, nothing stands out so much as India’s constancy in pursuing nuclear bomb-making and America’s nearsightedness about Indian intentions.  India fought to weaken the charter of the new International Atomic Energy Agency in the 1950s.  It was duplicitous in carrying out Atoms for Peace agreements in the 1960s.  It undermined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with its “peaceful” bomb of 1974.


“Despite this history, each new generation of American policymakers thinks that by being a little more accommodating it will gain Indian restraint and acceptance of nuclear controls.  The Indians (they are not alone in this) have for a long time played on that characteristically American self-deception that stems from a mix of idealism and commercial greed.  It is not surprising that the Indians expect that game to continue.”


And as we can see from today’s fevered negotiations to normalize US-India relations by putting old nuclear disputes to rest, the game does continue.  But nonproliferation must be given more than hortatory treatment in any nuclear agreement with India. 


In 1974, the U.S. bent over backwards not to confront India on Indian use of U.S. heavy water to produce plutonium for its test.  It covered up the U.S. role in CIRUS, and Congress reacted angrily after the role was uncovered.  The end result was the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978.  Today, the U.S. government appears to be preparing for a repeat performance on CIRUS, only this time the end result may be an agreement that allows India to turn an Atoms for Peace reactor into a declared military production plant.  I cannot think of anything more damaging to U.S. nonproliferation credibility and security interests.  Such an outcome will surely embolden Iran and North Korea to apply their civilian nuclear programs to weapons purposes.


Angry Congressional reaction to discovering America’s role in India’s 1974 test was enactment of the 1978 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act.  Its basic reforms---requiring full-scope safeguards as a condition of nuclear fuel and reactor exports, and requiring case-by-case approval of reprocessing spent fuel---so out of step with galloping global nuclear commerce at the time, have since been incorporated into the international rules of the road through the Nuclear Suppliers Group.


These reforms were made possible because CIRUS helped exposed major flaws in the non-proliferation regime.


Article III.2 of the NPT was interpreted to allow NPT parties to export to non-parties without full-scope safeguards so long as the individual transfer was subject to safeguards.


CIRUS predated the NPT and the treaty’s safeguards requirements.  But the reactor was subject to “peaceful uses only” contracts with Canada and the US and thus exposed the ability of a country to blatantly misuse a civilian, Atoms for Peace reactor to produce plutonium for weapons.  It also exposed the fact that unrestricted reprocessing of spent fuel could produce plutonium for weapons.   The case was made for applying controls on reprocessing after we learned that India’s so-called “indigenous” reprocessing plant, which separated plutonium from CIRUS spent fuel, had actually been the work of a secret consortium of U.S and European suppliers.


CIRUS also exposed the extent bureaucracy will go to cover its rear end at time of supreme embarrassment.


Lessons learned from CIRUS:


1. Don’t enter into a new agreement until violations of past agreements have been corrected.


2. You don’t tighten the NPT regime by punching holes in it.


What needs to be done:


1. CIRUS must be declared a civilian facility, as should all power reactors in India---imported and indigenous.


2. All plutonium produced by CIRUS should be placed under safeguards, or, if that’s impractical because most CIRUS plutonium is imbedded in warheads,


3. An equivalent amount of plutonium from India’s indigenous Dhruva research reactor should be substituted for the CIRUS plutonium and placed under safeguards.


4. The fact that India refurbished CIRUS and presumably substituted its own heavy water  does not change the situation.  Had India shut CIRUS down and replaced it with an indigenous production reactor, that would be a different situation, at least as far as future plutonium production is concerned.  But it refurbished CIRUS at a fraction of the cost of building a new production reactor.  So, the principal of contamination vs. proportionality should apply.  The reactor was “contaminated” by the original peaceful use commitments made  to Canada and the U.S.  Peaceful use is not proportional to the extent of refurbishment or to the percentage of original heavy water remaining in the reactor.  (Superphenix precedent)




If India is not prepared to make good on its original peaceful-use commitments on CIRUS, the U.S. should not enter into an agreement for nuclear cooperation with India.  Continued military operation of CIRUS should be a show-stopper, as far as the United States is concerned.