Sticking points in US-India talks

02 April 2007

Negotiations towards the '123 Agreement' required for civil nuclear trade between the USA and India are moving slowly on the issues of reprocessing and weapons testing. 

India has been excluded from international nuclear trade since 1974 when it declined to sign the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty. The USA took landmar
k steps to end the isolation in 2005 and in 2006 signed domestic legislation to allow trade. Now that text must be agreed with Indian officials, but talks have been slow.

The Indian position on sensitive dual-use technologies such as uranium enrichment, used nuclear fuel recycling and heavy-water reactors is that they are a non-negotiable right. However, the US text would prohibit the export of US equipment for those purposes.

Reprocessing is a key element in longstanding Indian plans for an advanced nuclear fuel cycle based on recycling uranium oxide fuel, and using the resulting plutonium with thorium in fast breeder reactors. That plan was developed primarily because of the country's isolation and lack of very large uranium resources. The plan's chances of realisation under normalized international trade are unclear.

Another sticking point is nuclear weapons tests. The US-agreed text states that cooperation must stop if India tests a nuclear weapon, but India is not willing to acccept that condition: "India had declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests, but that cannot become a bilateral legality," said Anil Kakodkar, head of India's Atomic Energy Commission. The USA meanwhile has signed, but not ratified, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

US undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns said: "We were hopeful we would be able to make progress to close out all of the issues. Some progress was made but in our view, not enough... Right now I would say the ball is in India's court."

Talks, which started on 26 March, will continue until around 6 April to complete the 123 Agreement. Once that is in place, the USA will be able to commence civil nuclear trade with India. The rest of the world is expected to follow, as the Nuclear Suppliers Group makes fresh guidelines in light of the new situation.

Further information

WNN: USA brings India in from the cold