123 Agreement could see IAEA-controlled reprocessing

30 July 2007

Reports indicate that India will be allowed to reprocess US-origin used nuclear fuel under the terms of the 123 Agreement text it has negotiated with the USA.

Although the full text of the agreement has not yet been released, statements by officials involved in the deal reveal that India could be able to reprocess US-origin nuclear fuel at a special facility under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

This would make India the third region unrestricted in that respect by US lawmakers - after the European Union and Japan - and the first to host such a facility under such international safeguards arrangements.

Indian negotiators had insisted on reprocessing, which had been central in their plans for nuclear energy development until now, albeit with non-US fuel. Reprocessing liberates unused fissile uranium and produced plutonium from used nuclear fuel to be recycled into fresh fuel. This is a sensitive technology because the separated plutonium could be used to fuel nuclear weapons.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA, said: "By bringing multinational control to any operation that enriches uranium or separates plutonium, we can lower the risk of these materials being diverted to weapons."

The other stumbling block in negotiations was language agreed in the US in December 2006 that would see the entire deal scrapped if India tested a new nuclear weapon. Many Indian leaders were unhappy with this and said it infringed on Indian sovereignty. However, the Indian cabinet has approved the renegotiated text and will shortly put it before parliament as a whole. Foreign minister Pranab Makherjee said that "all concerns of India have been reflected and have been adequately addressed," but US politicians have warned that their approval could be difficult to gain if too many concessions have been made to India on this matter.

The process to find a way for the two countries to cooperate in nuclear energy has been progressing slowly since a July 2005 meeting between President George Bush and prime minister Manmohan Singh. So far India has split its large nuclear industry into a civil sector and a military one, which includes some power-producing reactors, and agreed to IAEA safeguards and inspections in its civil sector much like those non-nuclear weapons states agree to under the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The details of this oversight regime remain to be agreed with the IAEA, but ElBaradei said: the US-India agreement "is a creative break with the past."

The USA sought to bring India into the mainstream of the global nuclear industry, which it has been largely excluded from since refusing to sign the NPT. As a non-signatory, India was subsequently excluded arrangements made by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and forced to develop nuclear energy alone.

The objectives of the NPT and NSG were to stop nuclear materials and technology passing between civil and military programs. With respect to those aims, India's behaviour is generally deemed to have been excellent: While generating nuclear electricity it has also developed and maintained its own weapons systems, but, crucially, has not passed on any technologies to other countries. The NSG is expected to rethink its guidelines if US-India nuclear trade becomes a fact.

Further information 

WNA's Nuclear Power in India information paper
WNA's US Nuclear Power Industry information paper

WNN: Finalized US-India agreement kept under wraps
WNN: Sticking points in US-India talks
WNN: INSIGHT BRIEFING: USA brings India in from the cold

Filed under: This article is not categorised