Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

Nuclear talks: ‘Manmohan sent strong message through Burns’

If a deadlock is to be avoided over the proposed bilateral Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, aka 123 agreement, the U.S. side will have to come up with an overall package that is consistent with the promise held out in the July 2005 agreement for full civil nuclear cooperation. Any halfway house will not pass muster, say Indian officials.

6 June 2007
The Hindu

‘Manmohan sent strong message through Burns’

Parliament, people expect `Tarapur legacy’ on fuel disruption, reprocessing to be overcome

Siddharth Varadarajan

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used the “courtesy call” Washington’s top nuclear negotiator made on him on Saturday night to convey to the United States “in the clearest manner possible” that the nuclear deal would not be acceptable to either Parliament or people if it did not insulate India’s nuclear facilities from supply disruptions and grant the right to reprocess spent fuel.

Giving an account of the “brisk and businesslike” meeting, which was scheduled only after it became clear that negotiations on the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement were going nowhere, senior Indian officials said the Prime Minister’s message was intended to convey the fact that the Government had no intention of backing off on these and other red lines drawn by him in Parliament in August 2006.

Together with the “extremely intensive” technical discussions stretching over three days, Indian officials say the Prime Minister’s brief meeting with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns “hopefully” drove home the point that India’s insistence on reprocessing and fuel assurances was not a “negotiating tactic” but a reflection of domestic political realities.

“No Prime Minister of India can stand up and tell Parliament that he is going ahead with this deal even though we haven’t got reprocessing rights and there is no security of fuel supplies,” a senior official told The Hindu. “This is frankly not saleable politically.”

Asked for his assessment of how Mr. Burns reacted to the Indian message, an official said the feeling on the U.S. side has been that “We are doing such a big deal for India, why the hell are you not taking it? Why are you making such a big deal about reprocessing and strategic reserves?” “But now, for the first time, there seems to have been an appreciation from the Americans that there is a political issue which has to be resolved, and that we are not bluffing,” said the official.

He added: “I can’t say the issue will be resolved, but if as a result of this last meeting we are now on the same wavelength, there is a better chance.”

For India, said the officials, “full civil nuclear energy cooperation” includes four separate spheres: reactors, fuel, reprocessing rights and fuel cycle equipment and technology. “It is very important to get this principle incorporated into the 123 agreement,” said an official. “The fact that the [Bush] administration did not take the trouble to inform the U.S. Congress that reprocessing is a part of the deal is not our problem. We have been saying from Day One that this is essential.”

External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s statement on Sunday that the U.S. side appeared to be facing “legal constraints” in completing the nuclear deal, say officials, is a reflection of India’s view that the necessary adjustments to domestic law President Bush promised in July 2005 have not been fully carried out.

In last week’s talks, say officials, a few relatively minor issues were resolved but all the big obstacles — reprocessing, security of fuel supplies, fall-back safeguards, and access to nuclear fuel cycle equipment — remain. On Article 14 of the draft 123 agreement — which deals with the circumstances under which there would be cessation of cooperation as well as the consequences that would follow — “there is still a lot of work that has to be done.” For the moment, however, officials say efforts are focussed on ensuring that any consequences that follow an Indian nuclear test should not compromise the country’s ability to ride out any cut-off in fuel supplies that may follow.

Giving an account of one of the minor issues which was resolved, Indian officials said the status of “byproduct material” — defined in U.S. statute as “all materials (except fissionable material) yielded in the processes of producing fissionable material” — has now been settled. Byproduct material, which has a variety of industrial, commercial and medical applications, is not subject to safeguards by the International Atomic Energy Agency. “But the U.S. side started by demanding Indian byproduct material had to be safeguarded!” said an official.

After a lengthy tussle, the U.S. backed off. Last week in Delhi, a compromise was reached wherein India said it would “share information” on any such material produced from U.S.-supplied equipment.

While declining to provide specific details on the different proposals covering reprocessing and security of fuel supplies, senior officials said the Indian side essentially sought to impress upon their American interlocutors the “legacy issue” of Tarapur. This is the U.S.-built reactor whose spent fuel has been accumulating for decades with Washington withholding permission to reprocess and refusing to take back what is essentially a toxic hazard.

“There is also a practical issue,” said an official. If India’s ambitious plans on the nuclear front fructify and 20 additional 1000 MWe reactors are built, the accumulation of spent fuel would be enormous. “At that point, if we find we are not able to reprocess, this would be a massive problem.”

“In the Indian mind, Tarapur is negatively famous for two things,” said an official. “For the fact that fuel supplies for the reactor were cut-off, and for our inability to reprocess. Hence, we need to show that through this negotiation we will no longer be exposed to these problems again. So we have to have strategic reserves to tide us over the problem of any disruption of supplies, and we have to have reprocessing.”

In practical political terms, say officials, the Prime Minister has to be able to “honestly get up and say `Yes’ if asked whether this negative legacy has been overcome, that there is reprocessing, that he has ensured there will be no supply disruptions for our reactors.”

Senior officials say an affirmative answer to both questions — as well as to the question of whether India’s strategic programme and three-stage energy programme have been protected — is crucial if the government is to be able to “sell the deal” to Parliament and the public.

`Joint safeguards’ opposed

At the same time, officials hasten to add, that there are other big issues which are still unresolved in the 123 process. On fallback safeguards, which were mandated by the Hyde Act passed last December, the U.S. side is insisting that India agree to secondary bilateral safeguards. Indeed, one U.S. proposal is for so-called “joint safeguards” to be conducted by the IAEA and U.S. officials, something the Indian side has categorically rejected.

As for access to reprocessing, enrichment and heavy water equipment and technology, the U.S. is saying its proposed cooperation with India will not cover this. While the Indian side does not realistically expect controls to be eased on the Nuclear Suppliers Group “trigger list” items — i.e. actual reprocessing or enrichment plants — it must be able to buy “dual use” list items for use in civilian reprocessing and enrichment facilities.

“The Hyde Act allows these items only if an Indian facility is part of the U.S.-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership or a multinational fuel cycle facility of the IAEA,” said an official. “But we want to be able to buy these items for our national fuel cycle facilities.” Until now, however, the U.S. is refusing to budge on this front.

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on June 6, 2007 by in Nuclear Issues.



%d bloggers like this: