At first sight, the United States should be uneasy, if not upset, at the new India-Russia deal. Having put in all the hard work, they are forced to watch the Russians take up the inside track in the race to meet India’s demand for civil nuclear energy.
But they are not. A senior diplomat involved with the Indo-Russian Summit told Hindustan Times a senior US official had indicated that they can "live with the agreements and statements (made during the visit)". He said the US had taken the view that as long as Russia and India have upheld the centrality of an Indian deal with the Nuclear Suppliers Group as a precondition to the cooperation, they have no problem.
According to Naresh Chandra, former ambassador to the US, "the deal is no longer a merely US thing". It has implications for the entire NSG, of which Russia is a member. He says there is no reason to assume the US is not committed to this procedure, or will do anything to "encourage dissidents (in the NSG)." In his view, as long as US President George W Bush is around, there will be no negative fallout. However, he did note that "greenhorns" in the NSG — smaller countries like Australia and New Zealand — may take umbrage.
The joint statement on the peaceful uses of atomic energy agreed on by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday uses language identical to the July 18, 2005 Indo-US statement describing India as a state "possessing advanced nuclear technologies".
Its reference to assisting the process that would enable "India to realise its goals of promoting nuclear power and achieving energy security in a self-sustaining manner", however, indicates that Russia is game for the stringent conditions India wants in relation to reprocessing of spent fuel and maintaining fuel reserves within the country.
In contrast, the statement of policy attached to the American Hyde Act speaks of such reserves being "commensurate with reactor operating requirements", and reprocessing remains a contentious issue that needs to be ironed out.
A senior government official involved in the nuclear negotiations said India would have to carefully nuance its policies and statements. "The Russian commitment may have expanded the envelope of our options," he said, "but that envelope should not be allowed to burst." He said it would be wrong to try and play off the Russians and Americans even as India negotiates the ‘123 Agreement’ to operationalise the Hyde Act with the US, or get the NSG go-ahead for civil nuclear cooperation.
According to Chandra, the Russian agreement was not a surprise and its major benefit would be to save time, once the NSG go-ahead is worked out. India will be able to straightaway begin construction of additional reactors and begin receiving nuclear material.
The process otherwise requires environmental clearance for the site of the reactor, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’s certification of the reactor type and various financial closures, a process that can take anywhere up to three or four years.
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