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Wednesday, Dec 11, 2019

Life in the nuclear lane

Let down once by the US, India’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA makes sure there is never a shortage of fuel for its reactors, reports Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Jul 11, 2008 02:22 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times

The safeguards agreement between India and the International Atomic Energy Agency was released to the public on Thursday.

<b1>The text acknowledges the unique nuclear category India will occupy if the Indo-US nuclear deal is completed – that of a recognised nuclear power who has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The preamble refers to India as “a state with advanced nuclear technology”.

“This is essentially an extension of the existing 66 facility-specific safeguards that India currently has in place,” said Anupam Srivastava, a nonproliferation expert at the University of George. “It is India specific.” And it is wholly different from what non-nuclear weapon states have to agree to.

Sources say the IAEA’s board of governors will convene in Vienna between July 28-30 to debate and vote on the agreement.

The safeguards are the least political and most technical of the four negotiated texts that the nuclear deal has generated so far. Its ultimate origins lie in a past incident of US nuclear betrayal. “This is about laying the ghost of Tarapur to rest,” said a diplomat.

The agreement’s core arose from the insistence of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) that there be concurrent responsibilities: if India placed its civilian nuclear facilities under perpetual safeguards than it had to have iron-clad assurances of perpetual fuel supplies.

The safeguards accomplish this task by authorising India to negotiate with other countries for “reliable, uninterrupted and continuous access to fuel supplies” and supporting Indian efforts to “develop a strategic reserve.” In other words, if the US does a future flip-flop, Russia and France can cite this agreement to step in and save the day.

India is also allowed to “take corrective measures” if overseas nuclear fuel supplies are disrupted in anyway.

An additional clause addresses the DAE’s fears that international inspectors may steal ideas from its precious three-step thorium cycle.

Thus, the inspectors must take “every precaution to protect commercial and industrial secrets” and keep their paws off technology and components indigenously developed by India. In India, the opposition has argued the text falls short on supply guarantees. This forgets the IAEA does not provide nuclear fuel, it only allows countries to do so. The US nonproliferation lobby has denounced the vagueness of the “corrective measures” clause arguing it could allow India to unsafeguard its facilities. Indian officials say they chose broad language because of an inability to predict future problems. “Like an insurance policy, you can’t predict if you’ll be felled by a heart attack or cancer,” said an official involved in the negotiations.

A bogey is being made of the lack of reactor names in the annexe, but these will be added when the agreement is actually signed — which will only follow US congressional approval.

As DAE was the lead negotiator for the safeguards agreement and the text would not have been released without its permission, the only Indian agency that matters has by default given the safeguards agreement a green light.

“At 23 pages, the safeguards agreement is a testament to the good standing of India with the IAEA. China’s agreement is over 50 pages. The US’s runs over 100,” says Srivastava.

In the context of the Indo-US nuclear deal, however, it is the approval of the IAEA board of governors that matters. If a majority of the board fails to approve the agreement, the Nuclear Suppliers Group cannot even consider asking its members to join the US in waiving the nuclear sanctions that India faces.

Indian officials are relatively optimistic about the chances of approval by the IAEA. It requires only a majority vote by the board. However, the vote will be an early test of the degree of international support for the deal — which will be crucial to the NSG where the waiver requires unanimous support.