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Russia, India Sign Secret Nuclear Energy Accord
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Alex Wagner

Building on a history of nuclear cooperation, Russia and India signed a secret memorandum of understanding (MOU) October 4 to pursue future "cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy." The MOU was one of several agreements, including a declaration of strategic partnership, signed during Russian President Vladimir Putin's October 2-4 visit to New Delhi. (See Russian-Indian Summit Firms Up Conventional Arms Deals.)

The heart of the MOU is a groundbreaking commitment by Russia to assist India with meeting its growing nuclear energy requirements, according to an October 5 article in The Hindu. The Indian daily also reported that the MOU states that the proposed areas of nuclear cooperation would not violate any of Russia's international commitments that restrict the transfer of nuclear materials.

Russia is obligated by its membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) not to transfer any nuclear or dual-use materials to states that have not concluded full-scope safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The NSG, a voluntary regime of nuclear-supplier states, only permits nuclear transfer to states without full-scope safeguards if the transfer was agreed to before the adoption of the NSG's revised guidelines in 1992 or if the transfer is required for safety reasons in exceptional cases. Russia reaffirmed its commitment to NSG export guidelines in May. (See ACT, June 2000.)

The U.S. government expressed concern that continued Russian cooperation with India, whose facilities are not under full-scope safeguards, could damage the credibility of the NSG regime. In an October 30 interview, a State Department official said that the United States "does not believe that any NSG member should provide nuclear assistance to a non-nuclear-weapon state that does not have full-scope safeguards."

However, a Russian source knowledgeable of the issue speculated that the MOU might place "conditions on cooperation" by which India would have to sign an agreement with the IAEA on full-scope safeguards. The source said that it is now up to Russian diplomats to explain to and persuade the United States and other NSG states that Russia's cooperation with India fully conforms to its international obligations.

Russia has been involved with India in peaceful nuclear energy cooperation, in apparent violation of its NSG commitments, for some time. On October 6, Yevgeny Adamov, Russia's minister of atomic energy, reaffirmed long-standing plans to "at least sign a contract on the construction" of two reactors at the Indian site of Kudankulam, according to the Russian official news agency Itar-Tass.

In 1988, the Soviet Union agreed to build India two 1000-megawatt light-water nuclear reactors at Kudankulam. Russia has claimed since the mid-1990s that since it reached the agreement before the NSG's 1992 adoption of revised guidelines that the Kudankulam deal is legal as a "grandfathered" contract. However, although the Soviet Union and India had reached an understanding on building the reactors, no official agreement was signed nor was any money exchanged. The United States, therefore, does not consider the 1988 deal exempt from NSG restrictions, according to a State Department official.

Moscow also agreed August 16 to supply low-enriched uranium fuel for the "safe operation" of an Indian nuclear power station at Tarapur, the Russian news agency Interfax reported. Russia claims that the transfer is essential for safety purposes and is therefore permissible. A State Department official said that Russia's deal to supply fuel to Tarapur "does not come close" to meeting the NSG's safety requirements.

The United States and Russia are set to convene the NSG in Vienna by mid-November to discuss Moscow's nuclear cooperation with New Delhi.