WASHINGTON/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The United States and India on Friday announced completion of negotiations on a civil nuclear cooperation deal that would allow New Delhi to reprocess U.S.-origin fuel and may ensure continued fuel supplies even if India tests another nuclear weapon.
Officials on both sides said the long-delayed accord met their needs but critical other steps must be taken before it can be implemented, including approval by the U.S. Congress.
The pact would give India access to U.S. nuclear fuel and equipment for the first time in 30 years, even though New Delhi refused to join nonproliferation pacts and tested nuclear weapons.
“Civil nuclear cooperation between the United States and India will offer enormous strategic and economic benefits to both countries, including enhanced energy security, a more environmentally friendly energy source, greater economic opportunities and more robust nonproliferation efforts,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Indian Foreign Minister Shri Pranab Mukherjee said in a joint statement.
Before cooperation can begin, India must negotiate an inspection regime for its civil nuclear facilities with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and win approval from the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Also, the U.S. Congress must approve it. Many lawmakers and nonproliferation experts are concerned about what they believe are concessions to the Indian nuclear establishment that undermine U.S. nonproliferation goals.
“We have not mortgaged any right, if anything we have enhanced our rights,” Indian National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan said in New Delhi.
Officials in both capitals discussed the agreement publicly but have not yet released a text.
Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center think tank, said that “at the very least, the administration should not make it easier for New Delhi to resume nuclear testing and to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.”
But “it appears that the ... agreement fails to meet these minimal standards as well as the clear requirements” in U.S. law, he said.
To some critics, the Bush administration’s willingness to let India reprocess U.S. origin nuclear fuel raises a question of inconsistency in its dealings with Iran.
Unlike India, Iran is a member of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, yet Washington has led a U.N. effort to force Tehran to abandon an enrichment program it hid for 18 years.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns played down recent U.S. sanctions against Indian companies for selling dangerous technology to Iran and insisted the accord proves that if countries “behave responsibility” like India they will be invited to participate in international nuclear trade.
The break-through in negotiations came two months ago when India proposed a brand-new reprocessing facility to handle U.S. and other origin spent fuel that would be subject to permanent IAEA inspections, Burns told a news briefing.
He did not know when the plant would be constructed but said the United States and India would first have to work out procedures that would also be subject to congressional action.
U.S. President George W. Bush agreed to reprocessing by India despite asserting in 2004 that “enrichment and reprocessing are not necessary for nations seeking to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”
Previously, the United States has only granted reprocessing rights to Japan and the European Union, key allies. Burns said the sale of U.S. reprocessing and enrichment equipment to India would require additional approvals.
Another major feature of the deal is a U.S. commitment to ensure an uninterrupted flow of nuclear fuel to India, including by supporting creation of an Indian strategic fuel reserve.
Congressional sources said this could be at odds with U.S. law requiring that Washington halt nuclear cooperation if India tests a weapon as it did in 1998. Experts expect more tests but Burns insisted this is “hypothetical.”
The pact makes no reference to testing but asserts each country’s right to request the return of transferred items, like fuel, “under appropriate circumstances” and Burns said the administration would do that if needed.
“This agreement has a finalized text which meets the concerns of both sides and serves the interest of both sides,” Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said. “There are no conditionalities.”