123 talks... fuel supply may remain unsolved
Ahead of key discussions in Washington between high-level Indian and American officials to resolve details of the 123 Agreement, government sources said India's concerns over the right to reprocess spent fuel were likely to be resolved. However, the stumbling block in the current round of crucial discussions remains India's right to uninterrupted supply of nuclear fuel to power its 14 civilian atomic reactors to be placed under international safeguards.
India should focus on its proposal (made on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Germany in June) to set up a stand-alone dedicated reprocessing facility for nuclear fuel of US (and foreign) origin, insisting on the highest level of international safeguards, western diplomats suggested.
According to G Balachandran, fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), India should "call the US's bluff" and accept the 'right to return' clause, in case it tests a nuclear device. The United States would find it physically very difficult to follow through on its insistence on taking back everything (including a used reactor) it had supplied in the event of India testing a nuclear device some time in the future.
A high-profile Indian delegation headed by National Security Adviser MK Narayanan and comprising India's Ambassador to the US Ronen Sen, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, Secretary Department of Atomic Energy Anil Kakodkar and senior MEA and DAE officials will confer with major American non-proliferation experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Monday before formal talks on the 123 Agreement. Heading the American delegation at talks on Tuesday will be US NSA, Stephen Hadley, US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, who has been involved in the dialogue since its inception exactly two years ago.
The meeting, it is expected, will help close the gap over contentious issues, particularly India's right to reprocess spent fuel from its safeguarded reactors and the right for India to receive guarantees for perpetual supply of nuclear fuel in return for agreeing to accept safeguards in perpetuity in its deemed civilian atomic power reactors.
In its Separation Plan, unveiled on March 2, 2006, India has designated 14 of its 22 nuclear power reactors as civilian, to be placed under international safeguards, and eight as 'strategic' or military, which would not be under any international scrutiny. The idea now is to finalise a mutually acceptable text for the bilateral 123 agreement, which will pave the way for resumption of nuclear commerce between India and the US after a three-decade hiatus. The political fillip to the crucial talks was provided last week when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called up US President George Bush to urge him to help with a resolution of the issue.
Depending on the outcome of the talks, official sources said, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may visit India early next month before the Indian Prime Minister travels to the US for the UN General Assembly session in September.