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Memory of a broken promise

In 1974 India carried out its first nuclear test, India persuaded US that the nuclear material used for the test was not from its Tarapur station which was being fuelled by the US, reports Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Jul 11, 2008 00:45 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

In 1974 India carried out its first nuclear test in the Pokhran desert. With difficulty, India persuaded an angry US government that the nuclear material used for the test was not from its Tarapur nuclear power station which was being fuelled by the US under a 30-year contract. In 1978, then US President Jimmy Carter passed a law cutting off civilian nuclear technology to countries which did not sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

The 1978 Non-proliferation Act and the Tarapur contract were at loggerhead. Carter, after much internal debate, decided he would ask the US Congress to let him send two more shipments of nuclear fuel. The Indian department of atomic energy was infuriated. It had agreed to place Tarapur under safeguards, allowing international inspectors and monitoring, with the understanding that it would receive fuel in return.

Carter couldn’t get the US Congress to vote in his favour. He argued that cancellation of the fuel contract would open the door for Soviet influence, would mean India unsafeguarding Tarapur and that, in the end, denying India would not help nonproliferation one iota. The Senate okayed the fuel, but the House of Representatives declined. Carter, his presidency already on its last legs, was unable to counter a fierce campaign against the Tarapur deal by a young Democratic legislator, Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

Eventually, the US quietly allowed the French to supply fuel for Tarapur. But it was an experience, one followed by years of Western harassment of Indian nuclear scientists, that the DAE has never forgotten.

That is why the DAE insisted on including a fuel guarantee in the text of the IAEA safeguards agreement. A different memory of Tarapur, one that saw it as a great victory for non-proliferation, is also why Markey was the first US politician to denounce the present Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement and remains among its severest critics.