Journalist | Writer | Analyst
13 July 2007
Nuclear deal in ‘make or break’ zone
New Delhi: While nobody on the Indian side expects next week’s talks between India and the United States to fully remove the major obstacles standing in the way of the proposed nuclear cooperation (123) agreement, officials here say the interaction will at least provide them with a “clear understanding of the [Bush] administration’s intentions.”
They said India had last month conveyed a major proposal on the establishment of a fully safeguarded reprocessing facility to handle American-origin spent fuel. But until now, there has been no feedback from Washington about this suggestion. “It is possible that they have begun a process of consultation with Congressional leaders based on our ideas” to see whether a 123 agreement including reprocessing rights would pass muster on the Hill, said an official. But if that process had not even started, this could only mean the Bush administration had not taken India’s concerns seriously, he added.
If this is so, the view among officials is that further progress would be difficult if not impossible. “Neither a firm deadline nor a drawn-out process of talks will help if there is such a major gap in perception,” said an official, adding that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh repeatedly said the final obligations and benefits from the deal had to be fully in conformity with what was contained in the July 2005 and March 2006 Indo-U.S. agreements.
The perception that the deal is now entering a ‘make or break’ zone is further strengthened by the composition of the high-level delegation that will depart for Washington on Sunday. Among the top officials accompanying National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan are Department of Atomic Energy Secretary Anil Kakodkar and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon.
According to a Reuters report from Washington on Thursday, the nuclear deal is stuck in choppy waters. The news agency quoted “a Congressional source who tracks the issue” as saying the U.S.-India negotiations “are not going well at all” with new areas of disagreement opening up. Reuters added that the same source “questioned whether the accord could be completed before Bush leaves office in January 2009”.
Though the status of the nuclear deal figured prominently in the telephone conversation the Prime Minister had with President George W. Bush on Wednesday and was mentioned by the U.S. National Security Council spokesman in Washington on Thursday, the official PMO statement curiously chose not to use the ‘N-word’ anywhere.
Earlier this week, Dr. Singh convened a special meeting of the “scientist” members of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to reiterate the Government’s position on the implementation of the nuclear deal.
Two former AEC Chairmen Homi Sethna and P.K. Iyengar were also invited to attend, though the latter was unable to go for health reasons.
According to M.R. Srinivasan — a former AEC chairman and now member of the AEC — the meeting stressed the importance of the proposed 123 agreement incorporating “upfront” and “without qualification” the right of reprocessing.
Dr. Srinivasan said that in the context of U.S. attempts to push the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) — with its idea of a handful of “supplier” nations providing fuel cycle services to the rest of the world — India had no intention of allowing multinational fuel cycle facilities or initiatives to substitute for its national reprocessing programme.
“The separation of pure plutonium from the spent fuel is crucial for our fast reactors and the move to thorium for our energy,” he said. In an attempt to allay any proliferation concerns the U.S. might have since pure plutonium can also be used for weapons purposes, India last month offered to go beyond the March 2006 separation plan by undertaking to reprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel in a facility that would be under regular rather than ‘campaign’-IAEA safeguards.
“But the Americans have not even looked at this offer,” Dr. Iyengar told The Hindu. Describing the nuclear deal as a “sinking boat,” he said the U.S. needed to realise that India was not prepared to curtail i ts sovereignty.
Dr. Srinivasan said the mini-AEC meeting also reiterated the importance of India sticking to its stand on fuel supply assurances, the absence of secondary or fallback safeguards, the insulation of India’s strategic programme from any adverse impact, and the protection of India’s research and three-stage programme.
He added that the scientists also expressed their concern at several extraneous provisions of the Hyde Act, passed by the U.S. Congress last December, which presume to dictate Indian policy in a number of areas.