India and the United States revived talks on nuclear safety cooperation with the three-day visit of US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Richard A Meserve, which began on Monday.
The talks, initiated in 1994, had been suspended following India's nuclear tests in 1998. But following Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's talks with President George W Bush in November 2001, the two sides agreed to resume the process.
The focus of Dr Meserve's visit was cooperation in safeguarded nuclear facilities and identification of specific areas of Indo-US cooperation in the hi-tech areas of peaceful applications of nuclear energy and space research.
Speaking to reporters in Mumbai after a visit to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre on Wednesday, Meserve hedged queries on whether this was a prelude to the lifting of sanctions on dual-use technology in the nuclear arena.
Meserve, who was in India with a 14-member delegation at the invitation of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board Chairman S P Sukhatme, said the two sides had agreed to expand the three nuclear safety projects (fire safety, emergency operating procedures, and design issues) to include two other areas: risk informed regulation and licence renewal.
"Both our nations face the challenge of providing safe, reliable and inexpensive electric energy to sustain growth and prosperity," he said. But as far as nuclear power is concerned, there has to be overriding concern for safety. "An accident anywhere in the world will affect us all and have serious implications for the future of nuclear power.... It is my hope that this visit will act as a catalyst for meaningful cooperation between our two countries in pursuit of nuclear safety," he said.
Asked what specific steps had been taken to avoid terrorist attacks like 9/11 on nuclear installations in the US, he said most of these steps were classified, but pointed out that nuclear plants were built to withstand huge amounts of external and internal pressures, and had numerous other in-built safeguards.
Speaking about the NRC, Meserve said the commission had nothing to do with the actual running of nuclear plants or the promotion of nuclear energy. "Our obligation is to ensure that plants are used safely."
"The purpose of my visit here was to meet with a number of officials responsible for nuclear safety matters, and to start the process for the resumption of the safety dialogue," he said. "Apart from Dr Sukhatme, I met Mr [V K] Chaturvedi, [chairman and managing director of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, which is responsible for the operation of nuclear power plants in India], and I met on several occasions with Dr [Anil] Kakodkar, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, and today I met Dr B Bhattacharjee, director, BARC."
We had very warm and cordial dialogues, and I don't think there was an element of disagreement during the entire time that I was here," Meserve added.
"We have tried to chart out the course of the continuation of nuclear safety dialogue through workshops to be held in each of our countries, and started some discussion on each of the topics and I think we have launched this effort in a very favourable way.
"The next step will probably be a workshop in the US in which a variety of our Indian friends will come and that is likely in winter this year. That will be followed by a workshop here in India in the summer of 2004. I think there is an opportunity for both of us to gain from such interaction."
Among those accompanying Meserve was Ashok C Thadani, director of the NRC's office of nuclear regulatory research.