India reassures U.S. nuclear deal going forward

WASHINGTON, June 2 (Reuters) - India’s foreign minister said on Wednesday his government was committed to implementing a historic 2008 civil nuclear cooperation accord, which could open the door to billions of dollars in business for U.S. nuclear plant manufacturers.

External Affairs Ministrer S.M. Krishna, speaking ahead of Thursday’s official “strategic dialogue” meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said New Delhi was putting in place new liability laws that mark the final piece of the 2008 deal.

“We are well within the agreed timelines. Of course the government is committed to put in place a nuclear liability regime. We will move forward,” he told the U.S-India Business Council, a business promotion group.

The civilian nuclear deal with the United States ended India’s nuclear isolation after its 1974 atomic test, giving it access to U.S. technology and fuel and setting the stage for foreign companies to enter a civilian nuclear energy market worth about $150 billion.

But endorsement of the liability law is imperative for private U.S. firms reluctant to do business in India without legislation that underwrites their compensation liability in the case of industrial accidents.

The bill’s progress in parliament has been slow, leading some U.S. analysts to express frustration.

But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has vowed to press ahead, despite political sensitivities over limiting liability for foreign suppliers in a country where a 1984 gas leak in a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal city killed about 3,800 people in one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.

French and Russian nuclear firms already plan to set up in India, and New Delhi has offered to tender construction of two plants, a business opportunity worth $10 billion, to U.S.-based firms GE-Hitachi GE.N6501.T and Westinghouse Electric, a subsidiary of Japan's Toshiba Corp 6502.T.

Progress toward implementing the nuclear cooperation accord is one of the main issues on the table at this week’s U.S.-India dialogue meetings, which both sides say are aimed at deepening political and economic cooperation between the two giant democracies.

Krishna acknowledged that other major issues, including the unfolding situation in Afghanistan -- where India fears fears a potential U.S. tilt toward arch-rival Pakistan -- would also come up at Thursday’s meeting.

But he said the fast-expanding economic ties between the two countries, which had cool relations during the Cold War, were a sign of a solid foundation and that business and technology innovation would be at the heart of the relationship going foward.

“I am still fully confident that the emphasis going forward must be on the India-U.S. partnership on technology cooperation,” he said.

Reporting by Andrew Quinn; editing by Vicki Allen