Slow Start in 2007 for U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal

Wade Boese

A top U.S. official predicted late last year that if the U.S. and Indian governments “move real fast” in 2007 they would be able to clear India for global civil nuclear trade in six months. But New Delhi has proceeded at a more leisurely pace, waiting until late February to renew nuclear negotiations with Washington and stalling on necessary talks with the world’s nuclear agency.

The two capitals agreed to collaborate in July 2005 when President George W. Bush vowed to end India’s nearly total exclusion from the international nuclear market. Bush conditioned this promise on New Delhi separating its nuclear facilities into military and civilian sectors and accepting International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on the latter group. IAEA safeguards are supposed to help ensure that recipients do not use civil trade for nuclear weapons activities, as India did with U.S. and Canadian imports in a 1974 nuclear test.

In March 2006, Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh endorsed a separation plan that by 2014 would subject to safeguards 14 of 22 Indian thermal reactors that are either operating or under construction. (See ACT, April 2006. ) The Bush administration then asked for and won legislation from Congress exempting India from a U.S. law prohibiting trade with non-nuclear-weapon states that do not submit all their nuclear materials and facilities to IAEA safeguards. (See ACT, January/February 2007 .) Although India possesses nuclear weapons, it is still classified by the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state.

Commencement of U.S. nuclear exports to India, however, requires completion of several other actions. The two sides must finish negotiations on a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, known as a 123 agreement, per the relevant section of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954. India must also conclude a safeguards agreement with the IAEA, and the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) must reach consensus to permit nuclear commerce with India. Finally, U.S. lawmakers will need to approve the 123 agreement.

U.S. negotiators supplied an initial draft 123 agreement to India last June and then a second draft last November. The United States expected negotiations on the second draft to resume in January, but India did not comment on it until Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon visited Washington Feb. 21-24.

A U.S. official familiar with the negotiations told Arms Control Today Feb. 15 that “about five issues” remain unresolved between the two countries. The official confirmed that two of the outstanding matters are India’s opposition to a trade termination clause if it conducts a future nuclear test and India’s demand for preapproved reprocessing rights for U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel.

Shyam Saran, Singh’s designated special envoy on the U.S.-Indian deal, told a New Delhi audience Jan. 10 that it was crucial India receive authority to reprocess. This chemical process separates uranium and plutonium from highly radioactive wastes in spent fuel. Once reclaimed, the material can be used again as reactor fuel or, in the case of plutonium, to make nuclear bombs. The United States has only granted the reprocessing rights India is seeking to Japan and the European consortium EURATOM.

U.S. officials told Arms Control Today earlier in February that they expected the United States would get back to India about a week after receiving its feedback on the second U.S. draft. One official further said that the Bush administration wanted negotiations finalized within about two months, but the official noted that the deadline was not connected to an April 16-20 NSG meeting in Cape Town, South Africa.

U.S. officials and representatives of other NSG countries say that deciding on nuclear trade with India is not on the group’s Cape Town agenda. General speculation is that the group could convene an extraordinary meeting for that purpose this summer.

That possibility would depend on completion of the 123 agreement and approval of an Indian-IAEA safeguards arrangement by the agency’s Board of Governors. Yet, IAEA spokesperson Peter Rickwood told Arms Control Today Feb. 16 that there has been “nothing beyond very informal talks” between the agency and India and that “no sense” exists when actual negotiations might begin.

Indian officials reportedly are upset with the agency’s offer of INFCIRC/66 safeguards, which would require all nuclear material imported or produced under safeguards to remain so until the IAEA decides otherwise. New Delhi says it wants “India-specific” safeguards.

Meanwhile, India is already lining up future nuclear deals. During a visit to India by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the two governments signed a memorandum of intent Jan. 25 to build four new power reactors at Kudankulam, where Russia is constructing two reactors under IAEA safeguards. In a joint statement, India said that the additional reactors and fuel supplied by Russia would be covered by the new IAEA safeguards agreement to be negotiated.