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Home > India > News > Columnists > T P Sreenivasan

The unfinished business of the nuclear deal

March 15, 2010

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The Putin visit and the India-Russia [Images] nuclear agreement have pushed the unfinished business of the India-US nuclear deal to the background. The benefits of the deal are already evident in the multiple agreements we have signed not only with Russia and France [Images], but also with Mongolia and Canada [Images].

But much remains to be done before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] can persuade the US Administration to be more liberal when it comes to transfer of dual use technology to us.

The Washington Summit on Nuclear Security in April and the NPT Review Conference soon thereafter will be important sign posts in assessing the global impact of the nuclear deal and the way President Obama [Images] wishes to play it as part of his overall nuclear strategy. An Obama visit later in the year has also added urgency to tying up the lose ends.

The two sides have just met in Washington to 'cross the t's and dot the i's' on the reprocessing arrangements, but they found much more to do than just linguistic changes. The white smoke is yet to emanate from the Washington conclave. But State Department officials appeared optimistic that problems would be resolved at the next session, if not at the present meeting itself. The reprocessing agreement, if finalised, will be a major advance, given the position of the Obama administration on reprocessing.

On the India [Images]n side, the much awaited bill on nuclear damages has run into rough weather basically because of the presumption that it was being pushed to satisfy US companies. France and Russia did not require such a legislation. But no one seems to give attention to the fact that there is indeed a worldwide nuclear liability regime consisting of the Vienna [Images] Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage, the Paris Convention on Third Party Liability in the Field of Nuclear Energy and the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage. India has been contemplating to join this regime as the number of our reactors goes up and the regime has its benefits.

India needed the passage of the bill to sign the Supplementary Compensation Convention. One important provision of this Convention is that the parties to the Convention shall make public funds available beyond the amount made available by the Installation State in accordance with the UN rate of assessment. This point was repeatedly stressed by representatives of US companies at a seminar in February in Washington, but this beneficial aspect has gone unnoticed in India. This means, of course, that India, as a contracting party, will be liable to provide public funds in the case of accidents in other countries.

The points made by the legal luminaries as well as the public activists and the position of the opposition have prompted the government to defer the bill. The bill is likely to be delayed beyond April and even beyond the Obama visit. No one will dispute the need to reassure the public about the legitimacy of the legislation and its benefit to the people. The bill is likely to be amended in the light of the various points made. A process of education rather than politicisation is essential. India will, however, be seen to be unable to deliver on our part of the unfinished business if this step is delayed.

On the US side, there lurks a Civil Nuclear Exports Guide, which threatens to delay, if not diminish the chances of nuclear exports to India. The guide clearly states that a 123 Agreement does not commit the US to any specific exports or other co-operative activities, but rather establishes a framework of conditions and controls to govern subsequent commercial transactions, if any. Part 110 of the code of Federal Regulations and Part 810 of the same Regulations require pledges from the recipient government to use the technology exclusively for peaceful purposes and the only authority that determines whether authorisations are required in the case of India is the Department of energy of the United States.

The Government of India has implicitly given this assurance already to the US government, but the need to give it in specific cases for suppliers may present an impediment. If such authorisation is required even before manufacturing the products for India, the clock will be set back on nuclear cooperation.

Someone had cynically suggested at the time of the Hyde Act controversy that the way out was for India to use the opening provided by the deal to trade with countries other than the US. It was to remove such apprehensions that India not only gave assurances of imports from the US, but also earmarked construction sites for the US in India. But nuclear trade with the US is still some distance away because of problems in both countries.

The quest is on, however, for means and ways for the two countries to cooperate in non-proliferation efforts, now that India is a partner and not a target for the US to impose restraint. India has expressed willingness to work with the US in the new context. Apart from the Global Zero effort, strengthened by President Obama's Prague pledge to move to a nuclear weapon free world, steps are being suggested for India to be helpful.

In Vienna, there are several proposals for the establishment of fuel banks as a measure to guarantee availability of nuclear fuel for peaceful uses. A Russian proposal was actually adopted with an abstention from India. Some of the developing countries see the fuel bank idea as designed to restrict enrichment by them, even though NPT does not prohibit enrichment.

India had taken the position right from the beginning that the fuel banks might not be of interest to India since we already had a full fuel cycle. But the US is urging India to have a fresh look at the fuel banks to see whether India can contribute to their operation. Similarly the US expects India to support the World Institute of Nuclear Security (WINS), which promotes nuclear safety and related issues.

India is yet to take a view on this issue. Nuclear safety and security are motherhood issues for India, but we also believe that the dangers should not be exaggerated to increase the allergy in certain countries to nuclear power.

The unfinished business of the nuclear deal looms large in India-US relations as it is a test of the willingness of both sides to move further into a strategic relationship. A strategic relationship entails mutual faith and confidence, which seem to be lacking at present. The developments at the Security Summit and the NPT Review will determine the future of nuclear cooperation between India and the United States.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. He is currently the Director General, Kerala [Images] International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, and a Member of the National Security Advisory Board.

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