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The importance of nuclear deal for India

india Updated: Aug 30, 2007 17:55 IST

The reason why the 123 Agreement is important enough to rock the government's stability is because it is so ambitious in scope. It seeks to restore, with honour, India's right to access its nuclear requirements in the international community.

When functional, India would get access not only to atomic power reactors, but banned 'dual use' technologies useful for its space, medicine and biotechnology programmes. It could also sell its expertise and products.

The 123 Agreement will end three decades of an international technology denial regime of which India has been a victim. Since the US led the nuclear ban on India after its 'peaceful nuclear experiment' of 1974, the US, as the world's major power, had to take the initiative to restore India to the international nuclear regime. In 1974, all foreign assistance immediately stopped, crippling our indigenous nuclear programme, most visibly at Tarapur. India has since been a nuclear outcast because it pursued its independent nuclear programme and refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which it saw as discriminatory. To help India, the US administration first needed to change its own laws, which barred it from any nuclear cooperation with a country like India, a non-NPT member with an atomic weapons programme.

The law to get a waiver from its own Houses of Congress to begin nuclear collaboration with India was what was passed as the Henry J Hyde Act in December 2006. The Hyde Act is a domestic US law, which has some prescriptive and some binding clauses on the US administration. It is not binding on India.

Having got the waiver, Indian and American officials had to negotiate a Bilateral agreement, known as the 123 Agreement, because Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954 deals with nuclear cooperation with any foreign country. As with India, the US has 123 Agreements with China and others.

This agreement is ONLY for peaceful uses of nuclear energy, which is why India had to present a Separation Plan, separating its civilian nuclear power reactors from its strategic or weapons programme. Fourteen of its 22 atomic power reactors were designated as civilian. The remaining eight were for its military/weapons programme.

In return for placing its civilian reactors under safeguards from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations, India would be assured of fuel supplies for its civilian reactors. India has long had an atomic energy programme, but very limited quantities of uranium fuel. The initial power reactors were built with foreign help, from the Americans, Canadians and latel the Russians. Six of its power reactors are already under IAEA safeguards.

The 123 Agreement takes on board India's concerns, the 'red lines' which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laid out in Parliament. These were that India's strategic or weapons programme must stay out of the agreement's scope; that India must have assured access to fuel for the entire life of its reactors (so no more Tarapur-like situations occur; India must have the right to reprocess (re-use) the spent fuel from its reactors and India must regain access to the full nuclear cycle and related technologies.

The 123 substantially meets Indian concerns on reprocessing (re-using) spent fuel, assures it of nuclear fuel supplies and crucially, does not stop India's right to test a nuclear device, if required. It permits nuclear trade, transfer of nuclear material, equipment, components and related technology and cooperation in the civil nuclear fuel cycle between India and the US. It allows India to create a reserve of nuclear fuel for each of its civilian reactors and provides guarantees for perpetual supply of fuel in case there is a problem.

India has to place its civilian reactors under perpetual IAEA safeguards, and will build a dedicated reprocessing facility. According to international critics, India has been given too much and the 123 can run counter to the international non-proliferation regime.

Domestic critics, like those from the Left however feel lndia has, by this deal, very closely aligned itself with the US. Having carried the deal to one level of near closure, the government now needs to strike an accord with the IAEA for safeguards to specifically meet India's nuclear weapons status (India-specific safeguards) and seal an agreement with the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) so that nuclear commerce can resume.

The NSG is a cartel of 45 countries, including the US, Russia, Canada, UK, France and China, which regulates all global nuclear commerce and controls international nuclear fuel and technology transfers to curb proliferation. Getting a waiver from it would allow India to resume nuclear commerce and offer it more choices to source its supplies than only the US.

Which is why the Left's opposition to the next steps, like going to the IAEA and the NSG, are difficult to understand. Ultimately, for the Left, the problem is that the United States is involved, and, for the BJP, the problem is they could not get this deal, though they initiated the process after the 1998 Pokhran nuclear blasts.