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‘123 fulfils Prime Minister’s assurances’
New Delhi: The draft nuclear cooperation agreement negotiated last week by India and the United States fulfils all the assurances Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave Parliament in August 2006, senior officials told The Hindu on Monday.
The agreement — also known as the ‘123 agreement’ — grants India “prior consent” to reprocess spent fuel produced by U.S.-supplied equipment and fuel, a key requirement for the Indian side, though the specific arrangements will be worked out subsequently within a finite time period.
The agreement reiterates the fuel-supply assurances provided in the March 2006 separation plan and commits the U.S. to the “continuous operation” of any reactor it sells to India. Officials also say the irksome issue of fallback safeguards and the ‘right of return’ — as mandated by the U.S. Atomic Energy Act — of American-supplied material in the event of cessation of cooperation have also been satisfactorily resolved.
Moreover, 123 includes a specific clause that the purpose of the agreement is not to hinder anything India does with its strategic programme or to affect unsafeguarded or military nuclear facilities.
The draft 123 agreement is final and its text is now frozen, say officials, though it still needs to be formally approved by both Governments. Once Parliament reconvenes for the monsoon session, the Government is likely to make the text available to the House.
According to the officials, any reprocessing of U.S.-origin spent fuel will be done in a dedicated national facility under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Though India has been granted prior consent, the specific arrangements have not been spelt out and would require further consultations. The draft 123 states that within six months of an Indian request to operationalise the right to reprocess, the U.S. must begin consultations and an agreement on arrangements must be concluded within one year.
The parameters for these arrangements relate exclusively to IAEA requirements for storage of spent fuel, safeguards, and physical protection. This linkage has been explicitly spelt out and there is no room for ambiguity, say the officials. “There will be no repeat of the Tarapur experience,” said an official. India was free to reprocess the spent fuel there but the U.S. never agreed to make a joint determination with India that reprocessing was “safeguardable.” “Now there is prior consent and a reference to the parameters under which it will be done,” said an official, adding that Department of Atomic Energy experts considered the language watertight.
In the event of the cessation of cooperation by the U.S. presumably in response to an Indian nuclear test, the draft agreement still gives Washington the right to demand the return of equipment, material and fuel it has supplied. However, the exercise of this right has been qualified by a U.S. commitment to ensure the continuous operation of reactors supplied by it and will leave India free to arrange appropriate fuel supplies from other sources.
On fallback safeguards, another key demand of the U.S. side, the 123 agreement says that in the event that the “IAEA determines that safeguards are no longer being applied” on U.S.-supplied material, India and the U.S. must consult with each other and agree on an appropriate verification mechanism. The officials say they are confident the circumstances would never arise under which the IAEA could make such a determination.
The officials also denied reports that there was anything in the 123 agreement which would require India to open up its enrichment facility at Rattehalli for IAEA safeguards.
The one issue on which the U.S. side would not budge, citing legal and policy restraints, was the inclusion of reprocessing and enrichment technology and components. The 123 agreement states that fuel cycle-related equipment can only be transferred pursuant to an amendment to the agreement. Though India is not interested in importing fuel cycle technology, it would like to source components for its safeguarded reprocessing activities. However, the officials are confident that the Nuclear Suppliers Group will not place a bar on the sale of these items to India when it changes its guidelines.
In terms of sequencing, the officials said the next step was the negotiation of India-specific safeguards with the IAEA and then the NSG agreeing to change its guidelines. The U.S. and India hope to conclude these steps by October, paving the way for an ‘up-down’ vote by the U.S. Congress later this year.