India, China & NPT

(updated December 2010)

  • India has a flourishing nuclear power program and plans to have 20,000 MWe of nuclear capacity on line by 2020.
  • China has electricity demand growing at 20% per year and a rapidly-expanding nuclear power program. Nuclear capacity of at least 40,000 MWe is planned by 2020.    
  • India is already self-sufficient in reactor design and construction and China has become so for second-generation units, but is importing Generation-3 plants.
  • India's uranium resources are limited, so it is focusing on developing the thorium fuel cycle to utilise its extensive reserves of thorium.
  • China's uranium resources are modest and it is starting to rely on imported uranium.

India is the world's largest democracy, with over one billion citizens. China has over 1.2 billion people. They represent about half of the world's population which is rapidly increasing its energy, and particularly electricity, use. They both have well-considered policies to increase dramatically their use of nuclear power to make that electricity. Both see nuclear power as an important ingredient of sustainable development.


See also: Nuclear power in India paper for fuller and more up to date treatment.

Nuclear power for civil use is well established in India and has been a priority since independence in 1947. In 1948 the Atomic Energy Act was passed, and the Atomic energy Commission set up. Under it, the Department of Atomic Energy was created in 1954, when the country's 3-stage plan for establishing nuclear power was first outlined.

This plan first employs Pressurised Heavy-Water Reactors (PHWR) fuelled by natural uranium to generate electricity and produce plutonium as a by-product. Stage 2 uses fast breeder reactors burning the plutonium to breed U-233 from thorium. Stage 3 is to develop this and produce a surplus of fissile material.

India's civil nuclear strategy has been directed towards complete independence in the nuclear fuel cycle, necessary because it is excluded from the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) due to it acquiring nuclear weapons capability after 1970. (Those five countries doing so before 1970 were accorded the status of Nuclear Weapons States under the NPT.)

In May 1974 when India exploded its first nuclear device only 94 states had signed the NPT and fewer (79) had ratified it. This compares with 190 ratifying states in 2007. After 1974 India was denied nuclear technology by the Western world. Post 1974, India has been considered a nuclear weapons-capable state - though its military nuclear program proceeded slowly in the ensuing years and only came fully out of the closet in 1998 when India conducted several nuclear explosive tests. The rationale for this isolation was largely coercive, to encourage signature of the NPT by India and the other 80+ states that were non-signatories in 1974. However, political support within India for its nuclear weapons program has been strong across the political spectrum, due to perceptions of its neighbours China and Pakistan in particular, and this precluded any move to sign the NPT as a Non-Nuclear Weapons State - the only option open from NPT perspective.

The self-sufficiency engendered by this isolation extends from uranium exploration and mining through fuel fabrication, heavy water production, reactor design and construction, to reprocessing used fuel ,and waste management. It has a small fast breeder reactor and is building a much larger one. It is also developing technology to utilise its abundant resources of thorium as a nuclear fuel.

It has 17 small and two mid-sized nuclear power reactors in commercial operation, six under construction - including two large ones, and more planned. In 2007 nuclear power contributed 15.8 billion kWh of electricity - 2.5% of total, from 3.5 GWe of capacity.  In the next two years the amount fell due to shortage of uranium.

In 2006 almost US$ 9 billion was committed for power projects, including 9354 MWe of new generating capacity, taking forward projects to 43.6 GWe and US$ 51 billion overall. Government policy is to have 20 GWe of nuclear capacity operating by 2020, and 25% nuclear contribution is foreseen by 2050.

Led by the USA, India has set up an international agreement which now allows it to import nuclear power plants and uranium fuel and to put itself more fully under the international safeguards regime without having to abandon its nuclear weapons. In effect, the aim has been to put it on much the same basis as China with safeguards and access to trade.


See also: Nuclear power in China paper for fuller and more up to date treatment.

China started its nuclear power program in the 1970s and the industry then moved to a steady development period, and now a rapid one as electricity consumption grows very rapidly.

China has 13 nuclear power reactors in operation, giving 10.2 GWe capacity, and over 25 more under construction or about to start construction, taking the total to about 40 GWe capacity. Another 40 are expected to start construction, which will give 70-80 GWe total by 2020.

Its operational reactors generated 66 billion kWh of electricity to the national grid in 2009, representing 1.9% of total electricity generation in the country.

Most electricity produced in China is supplied by fossil fuels (about 80%, mainly coal) and hydro power (about 18%). Nuclear power has an important role, especially in the coastal areas remote from the coalfields and where the economy is developing rapidly.

China has set the following points as key elements of its nuclear energy policy:

  • PWRs will be the mainstream but not sole reactor type.
  • nuclear fuel assemblies are fabricated and supplied indigenously.
  • domestic manufacturing of plant and equipment will be maximised, with self-reliance in design and project management.
  • international cooperation is nevertheless encouraged.

In 2007 contracts for four Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear power reactors were signed and these are now under construction, along with two Areva EPR units. This will give China a leading position with late 3rd generation reactor technology and provide a platform for China's further nuclear technology progress, along with its development of 1000 MWe class of reactors for export.

China's known uranium resources of 100,000 tonnes of uranium are modest compared with its nuclear power program, and additional supplies are required. Increasingly, uranium is imported from Kazakhstan, Namibia, Niger, Canada and Australia, with other sources progressively being added. China is taking steps to acquire uranium resources internationally. It has equity in Niger and Kazakhstan mines and is investigating Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Namibia, Algeria and Zimbabwe. A bilateral safeguards agreement will allow import from Australia.

India and China vis a vis the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

India's nuclear weapons program is described by its government as a necessary minimum deterrent in the face of regional nuclear threats that include a considerably larger Chinese nuclear arsenal as well as Pakistan's nuclear arms.

While India and China are alike in having large aspirations to produce clean energy in the 21st century using nuclear power, the two countries occupy quite different positions in relation to the NPT.

China exploded its first weapon in 1964, and India did so in 1974. Between those dates, the NPT went into effect. Under its terms, China became recognised as one of the world's five 'weapon states'.

For its part, India was left with the choice of remaining outside the NPT or relinquishing any possibility of maintaining even a minimal nuclear deterrent. In the light of perceived strategic challenges from both China and Pakistan, India chose a nuclear deterrent. However, it has been scrupulous in ensuring that its weapons material and technology are guarded against commercial or illicit export to other countries. Pakistan has been conspicuously unscrupulous, and China has been sometimes unduly flexible.

Meanwhile, international efforts to build a stronger non-proliferation regime had the effect of penalising India harshly.

The NPT itself requires only that internationally-traded nuclear material and technology be safeguarded - a condition that India has continually made clear it is willing to accept, even though it declines to disarm and join the NPT as a "non-weapon-state". However, in 1992, in an effort to induce expanded participation in the NPT, the informal 'club' of nations called the Nuclear Suppliers Group decided - as a matter of policy, not law - to prohibit all nuclear commerce with nations that have not agreed to full-scope safeguards. This precondition effectively requires countries to join the NPT as non-weapon-states if they are to participate in nuclear commerce.

As a practical matter, this left India as a pariah in the world of nuclear commerce. India's response has been to intensify its embrace of the ethos of self-reliance as it continues its dual policy of maintaining a small nuclear deterrent while pursuing peaceful nuclear power on a ever-larger scale.

In October 2002 - while India was hosting a major conference of signatories to the International Framework Convention on Climate Change - the Indian Prime Minister called for a rational review of global non-proliferation policy. Specifically, he asked the international community to:

  • Focus on clandestine and illegal development and transfer of missile and nuclear technology;
  • Recognise that India's indigenous nuclear weapons program provides nothing more than a "minimum credible deterrent" that is necessary for its regional security and that India has not contributed to nuclear proliferation beyond its borders;
  • Take cognizance of the global environmental importance of India's civil nuclear power program and co-operate with it, using safeguards to ensure that all traded material is used for peaceful purposes; and
  • End its hypocrisy in relation to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. ("It is truly ironic that we are lectured on our moral obligations to clamp down on emissions while being denied international technology co-operation.")

US initiatives and international moves to affirm India

In March 2006 India and the USA signed an agreement designed to put India on the same basis as China in relation to international trade in nuclear technology and materials. The agreement was finalised in July 2007, opening the way for India's participation in international commerce in nuclear fuel and equipment and requiring India to put most of the country's nuclear power reactors under IAEA safeguards and close down the Cirus research reactor by 2010.  It would allow India to reprocess US-origin and other foreign-sourced nuclear fuel at a new national plant under IAEA safeguards.  This would be for used fuel arising from those 14 reactors designated as unambiguously civilian and under full IAEA safeguards.   

The IAEA Director General welcomed the agreement in 2006 as "an important step towards satisfying India's growing need for energy, including nuclear technology and fuel, as an engine for development." At the same time "It would also bring India closer as an important partner in the non-proliferation regime," he said. "It would also be a step towards the universalization of the of the international safeguards regime" and "timely for ongoing efforts to consolidate the non-proliferation regime, combat nuclear terrorism and strengthen nuclear safety."

After much delay in India's parliament, it then set up a new and comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, plus an Additional Protocol.  The IAEA board approved this in July 2008, after the agreement had threatened to bring down the Indian government.  The agreement is similar to those between IAEA and non nuclear weapons states, notably Infcirc-66, the IAEA's information circular that lays out procedures for applying facility-specific safeguards, hence much more restrictive than many in India's parliament wanted.  

The next step in bringing India into the fold was the consensus resolution of the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in September 2008 to exempt India from its rule of prohibiting trade with non-members of the NPT.  A bilateral trade agreement then went to US Congress for final approval.  Similar agreements will apply with Russia and France.  The ultimate objective is to put India on the same footing as China in respect to responsibilities and trade opportunities, though it has had to accept much tighter international controls than other nuclear-armed countries.

The introduction to India's safeguards agreement says that India's access to assured supplies of fresh fuel is an "essential basis" for New Delhi's acceptance of IAEA safeguards on some of its reactors and that India has a right to take "corrective measures to ensure uninterrupted operation of its civilian nuclear reactors in the event of disruption of foreign fuel supplies."  But the introduction also says that India will "provide assurance against withdrawal of safeguarded nuclear material from civilian use at any time."  In the course of NSG deliberations India also gave assurances regarding weapons testing.

In October 2008 US Congress passed the bill allowing civil nuclear trade with India, and a nuclear trade agreement was signed with France.  The 2008 agreements ended 34 years of trade isolation on nuclear materials and technology.

India's safeguards agreement was signed early in 2009, though the timeframe for bringing the extra reactors (Kakrapar 1-2 and Narora 1-2, beyond Tarapur 1 & 2, Rawatbhata 1 to 6 and Kudankulam 1 & 2) under safeguards still has to be finalised. The Additional Protocol to the safeguards agreement was agreed by the IAEA Board in March 2009, and signed by India in May 2009, but needs to be ratified by India. This has the practical effect of making India a sixth nuclear weapons state alongside, and perhaps eventually within, the NPT system.

When the 2006 agreement was reached, India had 15 operating nuclear power reactors plus 8 more under construction, one of them a fast-breeder. It also then had 5 operating research reactors - two very large ones - apparently run as military plutonium producers, and one a 40 MWt fast-breeder.  The large CIRUS research reactor is to be closed and decommissioned by the end of 2010. The two fast-breeder units would be excluded from safeguards, but future "civil" fast breeders would be included. Of the current reactors and those under construction, 14 would be covered by safeguards. At present ten units are under safeguards, including foreign-supplied ones under arrangements predating the NPT.

Pakistan has indicated a desire for a similar agreement, with China if not the USA, but both the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the USA said that they would not relax trade rules for Pakistan in the light of its track record. India's record of avoiding any export of nuclear material or technology is consistent with Article 1 of the NPT, and stands in sharp contrast to Pakistan's role as a wholesale proliferator contributing to the failure of Iran, Libya and North Korea to abide by their NPT commitments.

The US initiative with IAEA support and accepted by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, has the practical effect of making India a sixth nuclear weapons state alongside, if not eventually within, the NPT system. This will involve both benefits and responsibilities.


Dr A.Kakodkar, paper at WNA Symposium 2002.
A B Vajpayee in India Express 31/10/02.
A.Gopalakrishnan, 2002, Evolution of the Indian Nuclear Power Program, Ann Review Energy Environment 27:369-395.