As New Delhi readies to welcome United States Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns on Thursday and resume negotiations on the 123 Agreement to make the Indo-US nuclear deal operational, reprocessing rights appear to be the principal hurdle. India’s three-stage nuclear power programme is built around the need to reprocess spent fuel into plutonium.
A senior official familiar with the negotiations told the Hindustan Times that while there was agreement on 80-85 per cent of the text of the draft, a great deal of work remained to be done to finalise the other issues. He said some genuine problems and “some unreasonable demands on both sides” were holding up the final agreement. He, however, exuded optimism saying "Despite all the problems we will probably cut a deal this time.”
On reprocessing, he said, “We simply cannot take chances, given the US record on this issue, and we do need to nail it down because we cannot sell the deal internally otherwise.” He said on this there was unanimity between the Ministry of External Affairs and the Department of Atomic Energy, alluding to the well publicised differences between the two on some other issues. The official said this was an area where the US could accommodate India because there was no US law prohibiting the administration from giving India the right to reprocess. Citing a precedent, he said the US had allowed Japan and Euratom (an European consortium) to reprocess spent fuel.
If the US was unreasonable on this, India too was less than helpful on other issues. For example, “egged on by some domestic elements, we are demanding the sky in terms of reprocessing and enrichment technology from the US.” The senior official wondered why India needed these technologies, when its scientists claim they had mastered them anyway. India runs reprocessing facilities in Tarapur, Trombay and Kalpakkam, as well as a small uranium enrichment facility in Karnataka.
While the US has given the rights to Japan and Europe to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium, it has not provided them any technology license. In fact, under the Hyde Act, India is the only country that could be entitled to such technologies, if they were run under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency and dealt with proliferation-resistant technologies.
Indian experts acknowledge that the Indian demand for such technology hits at the very heart of US concerns that technology could slip from the civilian part of the Indian programme to the military one. “The US is not worried that we will use the facilities for military purposes, but that we could copy enrichment and reprocessing technologies for military use,” said one retired nuclear scientist, adding “after all we have successfully cloned and improved on the CANDU Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor in the past.”
On conducting a nuclear test, the senior official said that there was no way India could commit itself not to test, “But this does not mean that our position will be 'we will test and you will commit yourself not to react to our test.’” But, he felt that this was an issue where a compromise formulation was possible. Another issue that could be bridged easily was the right of return of US equipment in the event of the deal being terminated for some reason.
According to another senior Ministry of External Affairs official, time was now running out on the deal. "President George W. Bush no longer has the kind of control over the Congress that he had before we lost critical momentum in 2005 and 2006," he said. Democratic front-runners Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama supported the "killer amendments" during the vote on the Hyde Act, and Indian official assessments are that the chances of getting a better deal from any Democrat successor to Bush are next to zero.