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The rebirth of the Indo-US nuclear collaboration

It is a welcome step that in principle the logjam on the nuclear deal has been broken over a cup of tea basking in the bonhomie of the Modi-Obama chemical bonding.

When the Indo USA nuclear deal was mooted through the Bush-Manmohan Singh agreement 8 years back, we all looked forward to the opening up of the Indian nuclear industry to the international main stream, ending an unfair denial regime. There have been ups and downs, frustrations and hopes alternating. We thought the ‘bride’ was ready but the ‘bridegroom’ was not. Let us hope this time the chemical bonding will yield to substantial results.


The tweaked 123 act...

After initial euphoria over the Bush-Singh agreement, came cautious approach from the US legislature resulting in an intrusive 123 bill. The approach to opening up was littered with several legalistic and logistic obstacles in both the countries. The 123 article of the US Atomic Energy Act had to be tweaked to enable the thing to happen. The hawks back in US were not making things easy. To end a long story short, this resulted in the famous Hyde Act which gave exemptions for US to trade with India in nuclear technologybut with several riders.

Under this Act, the President has to review periodically how much uranium is produced in India, commitment to strategic programmes, a date by which fissile material cut off agreement will be signed,etc., making all these conditional. The US stipulation that India sign an IAEA agreement was deftly handled and completed successfully by the Indian government. The IAEA safeguards agreement is sufficiently comprehensive and intrusive to satisfy the President to get over proliferation concerns.

This helped India to get the licence to have unsafeguarded facilities for strategic applications.  Still, there was no progress in the matter from US and the signal emanating through the NSG was not that encouraging. It again harped on India signing the proper NPT, making it difficult for other countries which are all signatories to NSG protocol to make any substantial’ trade with India. Even during the discussions prelude to the President’s current visit,the US team seemed insisting on bilateral safeguards in addition to the civil-military separation plan that India has submitted to the IAEA.

Liabilities erupted...

Then came the liability issues due to the political situation resulting in procrastinations. Despite the technological safety status of the current nuclear reactors, the West was wary about this. Hence, the present Indian initiative to provide insurance cover to this was agreed by the President, though it might push the cost of nuclear power further. We have also to brood if the Indian liability bill is of any practical consequence.

Consider a hypothetical case of a nuclear plant accident in the aftermath of which the legislation has to be applied. Eventually the aggrieved party would approach the judiciary stating that the accident is not due to his component and demand a technical proof for that. Establishing and pinpointing a component responsible for a serious accident is extremely difficult in view of the technical complexities. The liability legislation was for satisfying an inimical opposition given the shaky political foundation in those days. A more stable political disposition would have found other viable outlets.It is suspected that the liability objections came in handy for the US to put a facade behind the non-proliferation concerns of the hawks in USA.

So, the India-US nuclear agreement continued to be in the back burner with no substantial movement. Now the agreement between President Obama and PM Modi has awakened the hopes.As PM Modi correctly stated, more than the full stops and commas in the agreements, it needs ‘chemistry’ of the personalities involved and building up of faith and not of suspicions. India in full faith has given international guarantees through the IAEA and has signed IAEA safeguard protocols. There is no reason for US to demand additional intrusive bilateral microscopic safeguards and tracking third party uranium shipments. The President has agreed to waive that requirement.

Let us hope the chemistry plays a part not just for now but for ever.

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