India-Japan Civil Nuclear Cooperation: Contextualising Abe's Visit

21 Sep, 2017    ·   5366

Shivani Singh considers the existing bottlenecks to the full implementation of the agreement in light of Abe's recent visit

Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Researcher, Nuclear Security Programme (NSP)

The strong Indo-Japanese bilateral relationship is a testament to the growing economic, cultural and strategic exchanges that both countries have shared in the past, and this dynamic has continued to flourish under the respective regimes of PM Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe. In light of this, Abe’s recent visit to India on 13-14 September was much awaited given that this was the first meeting between the two leaders since the Agreement for Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy between India and Japan came into force on 21 July 2017. One of the expected outcomes of this meeting aside from other items on the agenda was to provide a clearer picture of the extent of civil nuclear cooperation that the two countries could achieve. This was attained to a certain extent with some concerns regarding the deal being put to rest. However, there was one important and rather contentious area of the agreement that was left untouched: the termination clause envisaged in article 14. This article will assess this visit in light of the past and present challenges regarding the agreement and whether this visit was successful in addressing them.

Past Hurdles

The India-Japan Civil Nuclear Agreement aims to facilitate a smooth exchange of nuclear technology, equipment, nuclear material (source material and fissionable material) and non-nuclear material between the two countries subject to the clauses of the agreement. However, the road to this agreement was a bumpy one. The resistance in Japan to forging this deal emerged not only from India’s non-signatory status to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but also from various aspects of India’s nuclear liability regime. In addition, one of the primary impediments to signing the deal was India’s refusal to completely bifurcate its nuclear civil and military programmes and create two separate areas of domain knowledge, a condition put forth by Japan during the negotiations. Japan’s anti-nuclear lobbyists had major concerns regarding India’s possible intention of using the imported fissile material for development of nuclear weapons after reprocessing the spent fuel.

Anxiety regarding the deal was further exacerbated after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident in March 2011, wherein insufficient cooling lead to nuclear meltdowns and release of radioactive material. After this incident, anti-nuclear lobbyists raised concerns regarding the quality of the technology, equipment of Japanese reactors, and how a nuclear deal with any country will most likely jeopardise the safety and security of people in both states, thus further delaying the deal.

Existing Bottlenecks

Most of these concerns were put to rest by India during the deal negotiations. However, a major bone of contention in realising the full potential of this deal on both ends that was not addressed during this visit was the termination clause envisaged in article 14 of the agreement, which can prove to be problematic in due course of time if not engaged with comprehensively.

Currently, the clause gives a right to the party seeking termination of the agreement, a return of all the “nuclear material, non-nuclear material or equipment transferred pursuant to this Agreement and any special fissionable material recovered or produced as a by-product.” This is fashioned around the same template as the India-US nuclear deal where the parties have a ‘right to recall’, and this is also mentioned in a separate document regarding views of both parties. However, there is some ambiguity over whether this clause is binding on India. The details of the termination process have not been specified either: for example, the condition that components be returned in the event of termination of the agreement is problematic to implement because it involves shutting down a reactor, and dismantling and shipping back massive vessel components that would be highly radioactive. Who will bear the cost of the dismantling and transport of the material is also ambiguous.

Positive Outcomes

Abe’s visit was the opportunity that both countries needed to tie up the loose ends to facilitate a smooth implementation of the clauses under the agreement.

Firstly, both countries agreed to set up a working group “to strengthen bilateral cooperation in this field and reiterated their shared view that the Agreement reflects a new level of mutual confidence and strategic partnership in the cause of clean energy, economic development and a peaceful and secure world.” The details of this working group and its functions have not been chalked out yet, leaving space for further deliberations on the subject.

Concerns regarding India’s non-NPT status continue to flare up tensions in Japan every now and then, mostly advanced by think-tanks and civil society groups like Citizens’ Nuclear Information Centre and Friends of the Earth Japan (FoE). Therefore, a joint statement during this visit, reaffirming “their shared commitment to the total elimination of nuclear weapons” gave weight to India’s intentions of using the imported nuclear material and technology for civilian purposes alone.

In addition, both reiterated their commitment to an early conclusion of negotiations on a non-discriminatory, multilateral and effectively verifiable Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). This will help in setting the right tone for ensuring nuclear safety and security in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Seen in retrospect, the meeting between Abe and Modi was successful in further strengthening nuclear energy cooperation between the two countries and has laid concrete groundwork for further bilateral collaboration on clean energy. However, the visit could have gone a step further in addressing the issues and concerns regarding the termination clause in the agreement, thus removing the last issue of contention in optimising the benefits of such cooperation.

Shivani Singh is a Research Intern with the Nuclear Security Programme (NSP) at IPCS.