An explanation of why India is insisting on explicit reprocessing rights up front.
3 June 2007
India will stick to `rights-based' approach on reprocessing
`Without reprocessing, there is nothing'
New Delhi: Providing a broad account of the differences between India and the United States on the inclusion of reprocessing rights in the draft bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, senior Indian officials say their mandate is to secure the explicit recognition of India's right to reprocess spent fuel in the `123 agreement'.
Under the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, any country, which buys and uses U.S. nuclear equipment or fuel requires American consent prior to reprocessing the spent fuel which is produced. But rather than obtaining this consent later in a subsequent agreement - as the American side is insisting - India wants the agreement currently under negotiation to grant this consent and also to specify the precise parameters under which actual reprocessing will take place.
"There should not be any ambiguity in this matter," a senior official told The Hindu on Saturday.
So far, all that the U.S. side has been prepared to offer is "forward looking language" based on a formula similar to its 123 agreement with China. That agreement, concluded in 1985, provides for a presumption of approval in the event that China wishes to "alter U.S. origin material" and an expedited process of consultations to agree on a mutually acceptable arrangement. In addition, the U.S. has said it is willing to enter into a subsequent negotiation with India a few years down the line as and when the country is ready to reprocess the spent fuel that accumulates from U.S. reactors or fuel.
Indian officials say that while the lack of explicit consent rights may be acceptable to China - whose 123 agreement begins with the premise that the country has "no intention" of reprocessing U.S.-origin or U.S.-obligated fuel - India needs its rights to be recognised up front. "Reprocessing is integral to our entire three-stage programme," said an official. "Without reprocessing, there is nothing".
Though officials acknowledge that any actual reprocessing is still years away, India's insistence on explicit consent rights is based on a close study of the tortuous process Japan and Euratom had to go through before they were able to begin the reprocessing of spent U.S. fuel. "Don't' forget, these were American allies, with a long history of close defence cooperation and no strategic programme to worry about," one official said. "And yet the process dragged on for a long time and finally came with all kind of intrusive inspections." In contrast, not only do the U.S. and India not enjoy that kind of comfort level, but India also has the history of Tarapur behind it. There, huge pools of spent fuel produced by an American-built reactor have accumulated over the years with Washington neither agreeing to take it back nor granting India the right to reprocess. "That is why we are insisting on a clear, rights-based approach."
Right of return
While there are still differences between India and the United States on the precise circumstances under which the proposed U.S. "right of return" of nuclear equipment and materials will kick in, India is insisting that any imported fuel supplies and stockpiles cannot be compromised in any way.
Guaranteeing adequate fuel - including a strategic reserve - for India's reactors was a key provision in the March 2, 2006 separation plan agreed by the U.S. and India. However, the Hyde Act contains a provision limiting the provision of fuel supplies for India and directing the administration to lobby against fuel supplies for India in the event that the U.S. ends its own nuclear cooperation with India. And then there is also the right of return, which, if incorporated into the 123 in the manner the U.S. wants, would lead to India being forced to surrender its imported fuel reserves if it ever were to conduct a nuclear weapons test.
At his press conference on Saturday, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said that the U.S. administration has "assured us that there is nothing in the Hyde Act which will prevent them meeting their obligations from the July 2005 and March 2006 agreements".
But he added a caveat: "Only when we finish the task" would India be able to confirm whether this was finally the case or not.
Over the three-day parley, the status of India's strategic fuel reserve also emerged as a major stumbling block. "I think as a result of our talks, we have a better understanding of their concerns and they of ours," said an official.
He added that India this time was "more explicit than it has ever been so far" that the ownership of any nuclear fuel it imports under the Indo-U.S. agreement is a red line which cannot be crossed under any circumstances.
So far, Indian and U.S. negotiators have met four times in a formal setting to discuss the 123 agreement, first in Delhi, then Cape Town, London and finally Delhi again. "As far as we are concerned, we have nothing more to give," a senior Indian official said. "Now it is up to both sides to reflect on where we go from here."