"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Indian Demands Slow U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal

Wade Boese

As the Bush administration’s drive to revise U.S. and international nuclear trade rules for India has sputtered, U.S. officials have been expressing public exasperation with New Delhi’s negotiating demands and perceived foot-dragging.

At the Department of State’s April 20 press briefing, spokesperson Sean McCormack said that “there is frustration” over New Delhi’s approach to negotiations on a nuclear cooperation “123 agreement.” Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954 requires the terms, conditions, and scope of nuclear trade with foreign governments to be codified. Congress will need to approve a completed U.S.-Indian agreement for cooperation to commence.

President George W. Bush has steered the United States toward reviving nuclear cooperation with India after nearly a three-decade hiatus. Washington essentially cut India off from such trade after New Delhi’s 1974 test of a nuclear device derived partially from Canadian and U.S. technologies and materials designated for peaceful purposes.

McCormack’s admission followed weeks of increasingly exasperated remarks by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, who has served as the administration’s primary intermediary with India. Burns has been quoted by several news outlets commenting on U.S. frustration and disappointment with the current state of play and putting the onus on India to get things moving again.

U.S. and Indian negotiators met in March and April but made little headway. McCormack admitted that the latest discussions did not “quite yield the results that we had hoped for.”

The shift in U.S. tone from last December has been appreciable. At that time, Burns predicted U.S.-Indian negotiations, as well as other necessary actions to make India eligible for U.S. and international nuclear commerce, could be completed in as little as six months.

But U.S. and Indian negotiators have barely inched forward on an agreement, largely because of Indian demands that conflict with U.S. policy and law. Declining to pinpoint specific issues, McCormack said, “[T]he Indian government has raised a series of issues in these negotiations concerning our laws.” He added, “[W]e’re not willing to consider at this point any further changes to our laws.”

Among India’s demands is that the United States drop a nuclear testing termination clause standard to 123 agreements. New Delhi also is resisting an obligation to return imported items if it breaches the agreement.

In addition, India is seeking the right to buy enrichment and reprocessing technologies, as well as pre-approval to reprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel. U.S. policy is to restrict enrichment and reprocessing transfers because such technologies can be used to build nuclear weapons. Similarly, the United States only has granted reprocessing rights of the kind India wants to Japan and the European consortium EURATOM out of concern that other countries might harvest plutonium for weapons from the spent fuel. In fact, India has already used this method to build its nuclear arsenal.

On another front, New Delhi has yet to initiate negotiations on a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Safeguards are measures such as remote monitoring and inspections designed to detect the diversion or misuse of civilian nuclear materials and technologies for nuclear weapons production.

As a condition of Bush’s effort to refashion a nuclear trade relationship with India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged India would divide its nuclear complex into military and civilian sectors and allow IAEA oversight of the latter. India subsequently announced in March 2006 that it would designate as civilian 14 of its 22 thermal reactors that are either operating or under construction and subject them to safeguards by 2014. (See ACT, April 2006. )

Although India never signed the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the treaty commits the United States and all other nuclear-weapon states-parties “not in any way to assist” non-nuclear-weapon states in acquiring nuclear weapons. India falls into the treaty’s category of a non-nuclear-weapon state because New Delhi did not conduct a nuclear test prior to Jan. 1, 1967.

India maintains it wants “India-specific” safeguards, but it has not publicly clarified the concept. Still, India is generally understood to want safeguards that apply to facilities only when imported nuclear materials or technologies are present, which is inconsistent with the U.S. position and current IAEA safeguards practices.

Peter Rickwood, an agency spokesperson, told Arms Control Today April 23 that there have been no developments between India and the agency.

In an act passed by Congress and signed by Bush last December, U.S. lawmakers made the conclusion of an Indian-IAEA safeguards agreement a prerequisite for congressional consideration of a completed 123 agreement. (See ACT, January/February 2007. )

 An Indian-IAEA safeguards agreement also is understood to be a precondition for the voluntary 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to decide whether to exempt India from a 1992 group rule that restricts nuclear trade with non-nuclear-weapon states failing to submit all their nuclear facilities to IAEA safeguards.

In its December act, Congress also conditioned its consideration of a final 123 agreement on a consensus NSG decision to allow expanded nuclear trade with India.

Although McCormack professed that the administration still has “faith” that an agreement eventually will be reached, administration officials are clearly anxious. “This administration has about 20 months left in office, so we would very much like to conclude this agreement in the Bush administration,” McCormack noted.