The obvious solution to India’s shortage of fissile material is to procure it from the international market. As yet, there exists no commerce in plutonium though there is no law that expressly forbids it.
In fact, most nuclear treaties such as the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material address only U-235 and U-233, presumably because plutonium has so far not been considered a material suited for peaceful purposes.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) merely mandates that special fissionable material — which includes plutonium — if transferred, be done so under safeguards. Thus, the legal rubric for safeguarded sale of plutonium already exists. The physical and safety procedures for moving radioactive spent fuel and plutonium also already exists.
If India were to start purchasing plutonium and/or spent fuel, it would immediately alleviate the pressure on countries like Japan and the U.K. who are looking to reduce their stockpile of plutonium. India is unlikely to remain the only customer for too long either.
Thorium reactors have come to be of great interest to many countries in the last few years, and Europe yet remains intrigued by FBRs as their work on ASTRID, ALFRED, and ELSY shows.
The unseemly emphasis on thorium technology has many reasons. One, thorium reactors produce far less waste than present-day reactors. Two, they have the ability to burn up most of the highly radioactive and long-lasting minor actinides that makes nuclear waste from Light Water Reactors a nuisance to deal with.
Three, the minuscule waste that is generated is toxic for only three or four hundred years rather than thousands of years. Four, thorium reactors are cheaper because they have higher burnup. And five, thorium reactors are significantly more proliferation-resistant than present reactors.
This is because the U-233 produced by transmuting thorium also contains U-232, a strong source of gamma radiation that makes it difficult to work with. Its daughter product, thallium-208, is equally difficult to handle and easy to detect.
The mainstreaming of thorium reactors worldwide thus offers an enormous advantage to proliferation-resistance as well as the environment. Admittedly, there still remains a proliferation risk, but these can be addressed by already existing safeguards.
For India, it offers the added benefit that it can act as a guarantor for the lifetime supply of nuclear fuel for reactors if it chooses to enter the export market, something it is unable to do for uranium-fuelled reactors.
It is clear that India stands to profit greatly from plutonium trading but what compelling reason does the world have to accommodate India? The most significant carrot would be that all of India’s FBRs that are tasked for civilian purposes can come under international safeguards in a system similar to the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.
There is little doubt that India will one day have a fleet of FBRs and large quantities of fissile material that can easily be redirected towards its weapons programme. This will limit how quickly India can grow its nuclear arsenal to match that of, say, China.
Delhi has shown no inclination to do so until now, but the world community would surely prefer that as much as possible of India’s plutonium was locked under safeguards.
The U.S. could perhaps emerge as the greatest obstacle to plutonium commerce. Washington has been resolutely opposed to reprocessing since the Carter administration, preferring instead the wasteful once-through, open fuel cycle.
Although the U.S. cannot prevent countries from trading in plutonium, it has the power to make it uncomfortable for them via sanctions, reduced scientific cooperation, and other mechanisms. The strong non-proliferation lobby in the U.S. is also likely to be nettled that a non-signatory of the NPT would now move to open and regulate trade in plutonium.
The challenge for Delhi is to convince Washington to sponsor rather than oppose such a venture. In this, a sizeable portion of the nuclear industry could be Delhi’s allies.
Scientists predict that the impact of climate change will be worse on India. Advancing the deployment of thorium reactors by four to six decades via a plutonium market might be the most effective step towards curtailing carbon emissions.
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