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Perhaps the most substantial show of friendship India can make towards Israel is to offer cooperation in the field of nuclear energy. Some might argue that a complete disavowal of the Palestinian cause and close diplomatic alignment with Israel would be a greater commitment, especially given Jerusalem’s craving for international recognition and normalisation, but an alliance with a middle power who does not have veto power in the United Nations has too many limitations to be worth much. Nuclear cooperation, however, holds far more allure for two critical reasons: one, it has an immediately utilitarian dimension, and two, pace what some academics have argued about prestige, nuclear commerce is tightly controlled by an international cabal who have deemed Israel ineligible to receive nuclear material.

Yet what will nuclear cooperation with Israel look like? Is Israel even interested in nuclear energy? Can India conduct nuclear commerce with a country that is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or have any sort of tacit acceptance such as the waiver India received from the Nuclear Suppliers Group? Will it invoke sanctions? What would be the ramifications for India? Is India capable of becoming a nuclear vendor? There are several questions that deserve careful thought before either country embarks upon such a venture.

Is Israel interested in nuclear energy?

Israel’s present installed electricity generating capacity is close to 17 GW, putting it in the same league as other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. If the country maintains an economic growth of five percent, energy requirements will rise to approximately 45 GW by 2050.

Israel’s policy of amimut – a Hebrew word meaning opacity – regarding its nuclear weapons programme has meant that it has shied away about discussing anything nuclear in public. However, calls for the country to invest in nuclear energy began in 1976 and continued throughout the 1980s. A site in the Negev desert at Shivta was reserved for a nuclear power plant with a generating capacity of 3,000 MW in 1980. Early in the new millennium, the became more frequent early in the new millennium. In February 2007, Uri Bin-Nun, an official at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, said that Director General Gideon Frank had told him that Israel was actively considering building a nuclear power plant in the Negev. Barely six months later, infrastructure minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer declared that building a nuclear power plant is a national priority and the proposal had the support of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The tsunami at Fukushima also threw water on enthusiasm for nuclear energy in Israel. In an interview with CNN, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted that he was having second thoughts about nuclear power after Fukushima. However, Israel’s precarious energy situation meant that calls for nuclear energy would soon resurface. In 2015, the Ministry of Infrastructure raised the test balloon in a report that called for private sector participation in a nuclear energy programme. In an energy plan that forecast the doubling of Israel’s energy needs by 2030, the Ministry of Infrastructure suggested that at least 15 percent of Israel’s energy come from nuclear power by 2050.

Israel’s energy needs are not merely a matter of fuelling the economy – Jerusalem is very conscious of its energy security as well as the environment. After its diversification from coal to natural gas in the late 1990s, Israel discovered what would become the Mari-B gas field off the coast by Ashdod. Within a decade, natural gas became the country’s primary source of energy. Demand became so high that gas had to be imported from Egypt. However, the agreement had to be cancelled after seven years (2005-2012) due to political turmoil and terrorism and this experience underscored Israel’s vulnerability to Jerusalem. The discovery of the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields in 2009 and 2010 has given Israel a new lease of life, at least for the next 50 years, and plans are afoot to even begin exports to Europe; since January 2017, Israel began to quietly export gas to Jordan.

Israel also has no hydroelectric power to speak of, so it must rely entirely on fossil fuels, renewable energy, and nuclear power. Its move away from coal was partly due to environmental factors but also due to rising cost of imports; however, reliance on natural gas is still not quite environmentally friendly if Israel is to meet European emissions standards. More importantly, natural gas can serve as a reliable and valuable source of revenue if other energy sources can be found. Israel has invested in renewable energy and despite several remarkable startups in the sector, the government is not particularly enthusiastic about renewables due to its several shortcomings such as low efficiency, storage issues, water demands, land requirements, and grid stability. That leaves Israel with only nuclear energy.

Can India become a nuclear vendor to Israel?

At first glance, India seems a most unlikely nuclear partner for Israel. After all, how can a country which cannot sustain its own nuclear programme be of use to anyone else? It is true that the Indian Department of Atomic Energy has countless weaknesses but with a little political prodding, the DAE might just be able to assist Israel and in doing so revive its own domestic agenda. Despite its shortcomings, India does have the second-largest fleet of pressurised heavy water reactors in the world and decades of experience in building, operating, and maintaining them.

Globally, PHWRs are not the common choice for power generation; light water reactors have been preferred by the non-proliferation-minded governments of nuclear vendors. Yet with appropriate safeguards, this should not matter much to the international community which has experience in monitoring Canada’s 19 CANDU reactors of a technology similar to that which inspired Indian derivatives.

India’s reactors have the added benefit of being cheaper and smaller than the standard production models offered by Areva, General Electric, Rosatom, or Westinghouse. While these firms offer reactors with capacities between 1,000 and 1,650 MW, Indian models come at 220 MW, 540 MW, and 700 MW. The smaller size may suit Israeli needs better by allowing it to distribute reactors between three or four sites around the country. Admittedly, Israel may indeed prefer small modular reactors to even the diminutive Indian PHWRs but those models are yet to have a single working model even if Israel were eligible to purchase them.

It is not advisable to compare reactor costs across sites and technologies due to the dozens of variables that could change. However, as a rough illustration showcasing the viability of Indian nuclear exports, the two Russian 1,000 MW VVERs at Kudankulam III & IV cost India just short of ₹40,000 crores; by comparison, India’s 700 MW PHWRs at RAPS VII & VIII cost ₹12,300 crores and ₹11,500 crores at Kakrapar III & IV.

The biggest obstacle to India’s domestic nuclear manufacturing has been that no industrial house is willing to invest in the nuclear sector due to the paucity of orders. If India aggressively pursued nuclear energy for itself as well as for export purposes, it is a reasonable bet that there would be greater interest. India’s recent decision to approve ten more PHWRs for itself is a shot in the arm and if an order for 20 Israeli reactors over the next 30 years were to trickle in, it could reshape the industry.

There is also the issue of quality control. Indian manufacturers have had trouble producing nuclear grade turbines, instrumentation panels, and other equipment to an international standard. Cooperation with Israel need not be a one-way street – if Israeli know-how could augment Indian experience, these minor irritations might well disappear. This does require working with a level of openness the Indian establishment is not used to but it is a good measure to build character!

The biggest challenge to an Indian nuclear partnership will be its inability to provide full spectrum service. Delhi may be able to supply the reactors, manufacture fuel rods, train Israel to operate and maintain them, even buy back the used fuel to assuage proliferation concerns but it cannot guarantee a supply of uranium ore or yellow cake. India’s domestic production is shrouded in unwarranted secrecy but it relies on imports from Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, and Russia. The only way for India to emerge as a full spectrum nuclear vendor is by acquiring uranium mines abroad. This would help with domestic use as well as export and is a sound option that Delhi has anyway been considering, regardless of whether India cooperates with Israel in the nuclear field.

What are the geopolitics of Indo-Israeli nuclear cooperation?

This is the real question the proposal for Indo-Israeli nuclear cooperation boils down to. How will the international community react to the news? What will be their counter-moves? Can India and Israel bear the costs, if any? Are the benefits worth the price?

Legally, India stands in a unique space to offer Israel nuclear cooperation if it so desires. It is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty nor is it a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the primary cartel that restricts trade in nuclear technology, components, and fuel. Technically, Delhi breaks no laws by extending nuclear cooperation to Israel. Itself a non-signatory to the discriminatory NPT, India is perfectly placed to accept Israel’s refusal to accede to the treaty – albeit the reasons are somewhat different.

The primary concern for the international community, in principle, should be the diversion of civilian cooperation to military applications. To reassure the world, and because it is a better business practice, India can ask Israel to accede to safeguards under the International Atomic Energy Agency to those specific facilities India will be a partner in or offer a bilateral safeguards mechanism that follows the same protocols. The primary principle of non-proliferation reassured, the international community is but left with a sore nose at this circumvention of their net.

Used nuclear fuel is usually a concern for non-proliferation. India can buy back the used reactor fuel from Israel for use in its eventually coming fast breeder reactor programme. If the FBR programme shows promise, Israel might even be interested in recycling its used fuel with help from India. In a worst case situation, the fuel can be stored in an onsite facility until a suitable geological depository is found as is the case with all current nuclear power plants.

Will cooperation with Israel hurt India’s chances of furthering its own goals, such as getting into the NSG? Theoretically, perhaps. However, with China waiting to veto any mention of India and membership in the same breath, this really need not concern Delhi at all; its chances of getting into the nuclear cartel are as close to zero as one can get. The only way India might squeeze into the NSG is if Delhi is willing to let Pakistan off the hook and give it a clean chit for past transgressions. This is what “principles-based membership criteria” means and it is too high a price to even consider.

It is folly to even think that India is now a partial member of the nuclear community. Barring a handful of countries keen to do deals with it, the hurdles other countries place before Indian aspirations indicates that Delhi is resentfully seen as an interloper with powerful friends. India can expect further outrage from the non-proliferation community through at least these NSG members. Yet legally, India and Israel will have all their bases covered.

It may be tempting to compare Indo-Israeli nuclear cooperation to the Indo-US nuclear deal but it s not – neither India nor Israel are part of the non-proliferation architecture built around the NPT and NSG, freeing to engage in contracts of mutual benefit without restrictions. Regardless, the 2008 deal does establish a precedent and provide a structure for acceptable nuclear commerce outside the strict ambit of the non-proliferation regime. As with India, the non-proliferation community might decide that it is safer to have Israel’s reactors within the fold than without.

Much will depend on how the United States reacts, and as a close ally of Israel, Washington might be amenable to reason. India and Israel may also count on some assistance in lubricating the wheels of power in Washington through the influence of the famed Jewish diaspora. The deal, not a matter of identity or ideology, should not get caught in the internecine conflict in the American Jewish community. Israel has also been cultivating China, mainly for economic interests, who will have to choose between its relationship with Israel and its rivalry with India. The main opposition will likely come from the non-proliferation lobby, or nuclear ayatollahs, as Indian scholar Bharat Karnad has aptly named them.

Conclusion

Nuclear energy is not merely about a diversification of energy sources for Israel. World over, nuclear power plants have proven to have a multiplier effect on the local economy. The Shivta site, for example, would fit perfectly into Jerusalem’s other goal of developing the Negev. Additionally, nuclear power allows cheap desalination of large quantities of water from the waste heat generated by the reactors. A 15 percent share of total national energy creates a need for a fair number of reactors that can ease the pressure off Israel’s water supply. Tamil Nadu has operated desalination plants for over a decade from the waste heat of nuclear power stations in the state. Finally, a booming nuclear industry will also mean high-skilled employment opportunities for the population.

For India, nuclear cooperation will cement relations with an important strategic partner. It will also promote trade and strengthen the nuclear manufacturing sector by providing greater volume to make it lucrative for more players. A nuclear relationship with Israel would in effect set up a parallel nuclear commerce system to the NSG: if they wish to influence Indian policy, they must do so by letting India into the club.

Of course, all of this may be too soon for a country that has itself come in from the nuclear cold barely a decade ago. India, to paraphrase the immortal line of Lt. General Frederick Browning in the 1977 World War II classic, A Bridge Too Far, may be trying to go a bridge too far. People probably said the same thing about the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2005.

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