Santa Fe had a distinguished visitor late last month: Susmita Gongulee Thomas, consul general of India in San Francisco. Before sampling the local cuisine and exchanging gifts with the 400th Anniversary Committee, Thomas met with Gov. Bill Richardson, a former US Energy Secretary and occasional hostage negotiator.
Officially, they talked about film production. But the full agenda may have been far more consequential.
The meeting “focused on cooperation in [the] nuclear field between New Mexico and India. The Consul General mentioned that India is seeking both enriched uranium as well as uranium ore,” Bhai Sahib Satpal Singh Khalsa, ambassador for Sikh Dharma International and a local organizer of Thomas’ trip, tells SFR in an email. “This will be for the nuclear plants India will be building with indigenous technology.”
Khalsa writes that he was “in that meeting.” His account adds detail to a recent story on rediff.com, an Indian news site, which first reported that Thomas and Richardson “discussed the possibility of exporting nuclear fuel to India from New Mexico.”
Their Feb. 24 meeting came as diplomats in Washington, DC, and New Delhi made fast progress on controversial, potentially world-changing nuclear talks—arrangements that some fear add to the chances of nuclear war in South Asia. Earlier, on Feb. 3, President Barack Obama sent Congress notice that India had met a key prerequisite of a nuclear pact enacted in 2008. Then, on March 29, the US announced the terms under which it will allow India to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.
Much remains unclear about the Santa Fe nuke talks, including whether Richardson was acting independently or with Obama’s blessing.
Consul General Thomas did not return messages. And Richardson “doesn’t recall the issue of uranium ever coming up,” spokeswoman Alarie Ray-Garcia says.
“The governor says they talked mostly about bringing Bollywood productions to New Mexico,” she tells SFR in a phone message. “They also discussed some other business opportunities.”
George Joseph, the New York-based reporter and editor who wrote the Rediff article, tells SFR he had multiple sources regarding the nuclear discussions, including the consul.
According to sikhnet.com, an Española-based site, Khalsa organized Thomas’ trip with Pawan Singh Dhindsa, New Mexico’s honorary consul to India and manager of India House on Cerrillos Road.
SFR was unable to reach Dhindsa by press time. Dhindsa accompanied New Mexico Secretary of State Mary Herrera to India in a trip announced Dec. 28. They were scheduled to meet with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Foreign Minister SM Krishna. Topics of discussion included “renewable energy opportunities between New Mexico and India.”
Herrera’s office did not return SFR’s call.
Without more details, experts on the nuclear trade and arms control can only speculate about what India might want with nuclear fuel from New Mexico.
“The end use would be for some reactor that is under [international inspection] safeguards,” MV Ramana, a visiting scholar at Princeton University and expert on the nuclearization of South Asia, tells SFR.
The exports would have no direct weapons implications. However, “India has fairly limited stocks of uranium, so to the extent that they can import uranium, they can free it up for the purposes of manufacturing weapons,” Ramana says.
India already has uranium supply deals with France and Russia, among others. “Right now, they can play one supplier off of another,” Ramana says. “That’ll be the argument Bill Richardson is hearing from them…They would actually be saying, ‘We want it cheap.’”
Los Alamos Study Group Executive Director Greg Mello speculates that India could be a market for the new Louisiana Energy Services uranium enrichment facility in southern New Mexico.
“It could be they want an inside track on negotiations for the output of the LES plant, once it’s running,” Mello says.
According to a Feb. 4 report by the Congressional Research Service, US uranium shipments to India could have dangerous consequences. For instance, China might decide to supply nuclear materials to India’s military rival, Pakistan. Leaders of those two countries share a fondness for boasting about their nuclear arsenals.