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123 negotiations to be very difficult: Saran

Saran says the most critical were the issue of reprocessing of spent fuel, and India?s insistence of unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, reports Nilova Roy Chaudhury.

india Updated: Jan 11, 2007 21:04 IST

Negotiations to conclude a bilateral agreement on civil nuclear cooperation with the United States will be very difficult, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for the Indo-US nuclear deal Shyam Saran said. A number of key Indian concerns will have to be met or the agreement, commonly referred to as the 123 agreement because it refers to amendments in Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954, could fall through, said Saran.

"All that we have in the bag is an enabling legislation allowing the US administration to engage in civil nuclear collaboration with India," Saran said, speaking on the Indo-US nuclear deal at the India Habitat Centre.

He was speaking in public for the first time since US President George W Bush signed into law the (Henry J) Hyde Act, enabling the US administration to begin civil nuclear commerce with India.

Outlining major elements of concern that require to be dealt with in ongoing negotiations for the 123 agreement, Saran said the most critical were the issue of reprocessing of spent fuel, and India’s insistence that the unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing not be converted into a binding, legal commitment.

Conducting any future nuclear tests would be a "political decision," Saran said, when asked about scientists' objections to the agreement forming a cap on India's strategic programme. "Scientists might want to test every day, but scientists would not decide. The final decision would be political, with inputs from scientists," he said.

But it was important to ensure there was no legal binding to the voluntary moratorium on testing, because India did not want to break any laws. It would oppose any such clause in the 123 agreement.

According to Saran, there is nothing in the Hyde Act to prevent the United States from allowing the reprocessing of spent fuel, a major Indian concern. However, the United States has permitted this facility only to Japan, Switzerland and the Euratom project.

An additional protocol, outlining India-specific safeguards for those 14 nuclear reactors (eight of which have) to be placed under safeguards would have to be worked out with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Simultaneously, Saran said, the government is lobbying with members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to get a waiver from them, to allow the 45-member countries to begin trading in nuclear fuel and technology with India.

After a general NSG waiver, India would have to negotiate agreements with each of the NSG member-states with which it wants to conduct nuclear commerce. At present, it only has framework agreements in place with France and Russia, Saran said.

Saran is visiting Japan and (South) Korea later this month, he told HT, to try and get a firm commitment of support for India’s civilian nuclear programme from these two nations. Japan’s support is considered crucial in building a consensus within the NSG.

"We have been talking to member countries for support," Saran said. He declined to give a time frame within which the negotiations would be concluded, but said, "We are better placed in terms of reducing opposition than we were six months ago."