US-wary Delhi tiptoes on Russian reactors

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  • Published 23.01.07

New Delhi, Jan. 23: Self-induced fears of negative US reaction are likely to prevent India from signing a firm agreement to purchase four nuclear reactors of 1000-mw capacity each being offered by Russia.

There are indications now that instead of signing a firm Inter-governmental Agreement (IGA) to seal the nuclear deal, Delhi will opt for a weaker commitment — a protocol of intent. Moscow has offered to construct these nuclear plants at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu where two such plants are already under operation.

The IGA was expected to be signed this week during President Vladimir Putin’s visit. Indications are that this is now unlikely though Russia has not incorporated in the IGA any of the restrictive conditions for sale which the Hyde Act seeks to impose on US nuclear cooperation with India.

Moscow has offered India full transfer of nuclear technology, assured life-time supply of fuel for the nuclear power plants and the freedom to reprocess the spent fuel — all restricted or prohibited under the Hyde Act.

Even though the sale will take place only after the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) are changed, the Indian fear seems to be that the US would see the agreement as Russia upstaging it to sell nuclear technology to India.

This, some in the government believe, might jeopardise the bilateral “123” Agreement still being negotiated with Washington. The negotiation of the “123” agreement (so named after Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954 which facilitates such co-operation) with Washington is taking time because the Hyde Act imposes conditions extraneous to those agreed between India and the US on July 18, 2005, and March 2, 2006.

Some in the government argue that there should be no special treatment for Russia. Others have, however, pointed out that it was Russia that time and again went against international opinion to help India. After India’s first nuclear test in 1974, no country was willing to extend nuclear cooperation to India. Yet in 1988, the then Soviet Union decided to sign an agreement to construct two nuclear power plants of 1,000 mw each at Kudankulam. The deal fructified 13 years after it was signed.

What was remarkable was neither the breakup of the Soviet Union nor international pressure had any impact on Russia’s commitment to India.

It was also Russia which twice supplied fuel for the Tarapur Atomic Power Plant when no one else was willing to do so. The last such supply came in 2006.

Russia is also India’s sole source of sophisticated and sensitive technology denied to it by others.

Common sense would dictate that India should not have any apprehensions because its nuclear energy expansion target — 20,000 mw by 2020 — is so huge that not only the Americans but even the French would have enough business opportunities in this sector. France is believed to be ready to sell six nuclear reactors to India.

If India signs an IGA for the four 1,000-mw nuclear power plants during Putin’s visit, then because of its non-restrictive nature, this document has the potential to become a model agreement to negotiate with the other suppliers, including the US. India’s bargaining position with the other nuclear suppliers would be strengthened, not weakened.

In fact, experts believe that the US would have come abreast of Russia in the race to build nuclear power plants in the country if it had not made the task of negotiating a “123” Agreement difficult by introducing restrictions and extraneous conditions for nuclear cooperation with India through the Hyde Act.