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India, U.S. reach nuclear accord

July 28, 2007|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration announced Friday that it had reached agreement with India on the terms of a controversial nuclear cooperation pact after India offered to permit international monitoring of a new fuel reprocessing facility.

The agreement, which has been under negotiation for two years, would provide technical aid and fuel to India's civilian nuclear power program for the first time since 1978, when the United States halted such assistance to protest India's development of nuclear weapons.

The deal is opposed by many members of Congress who argue that it rewards a country that has refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Administration officials counter that it rewards a country that has not spread nuclear know-how even though it was not treaty-bound to contain it.

"We've made the argument that ... India, in effect, outside the system, has played by the rules and that the system would be strengthened by bringing it in," said Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns. He described India's offer last month to put its planned reprocessing plant under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards as a breakthrough in the negotiations.

The administration sees the agreement as part of an effort to improve U.S. relations with India, in part to counter the growing power of China.

Officials also say that helping India develop its civilian nuclear energy capability will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the rapidly developing country, the world's second-most populous after China.

American nuclear energy companies are eager to enter the Indian market, and administration officials have argued that the deal would generate new jobs in the United States.

Substantial obstacles remain, however. India must hammer out an agreement with the IAEA, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, over how the reprocessing facility is to be monitored. An organization of countries known as the Nuclear Suppliers Group must also approve the deal. Finally, it must be ratified by Congress.

Reflecting the widespread reservations on Capitol Hill, Congress last year passed legislation forbidding nuclear cooperation if India tested another nuclear bomb.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), head of a group of lawmakers who oppose the deal, said he believed its terms violate the new law, known as the Hyde Act.

"If the U.S.-India agreement is really consistent with the letter and spirit of the Hyde Act, as the administration claims, why won't they release the text?" Markey asked in a statement.

"If they're afraid of letting us read the document, then I can only surmise that it includes provisions they fear will raise the hackles of Congress."

A key sticking point for lawmakers is the administration's agreement to permit India to reprocess spent nuclear fuel into weapons-grade material. Under international rules, countries that supply nuclear fuel have veto power over whether it is reprocessed or transferred to a third country.

"In the past, the president has said, correctly, that reprocessing and enrichment are not necessary for the peaceful use of nuclear energy," Markey said. "But now he has apparently reversed course and decided to allow India to reprocess all U.S.-origin fuel. This is a huge departure from the president's long-standing policy, and Congress is going to want to know how his policies and his actions can possibly match up."

Burns argued that IAEA monitoring would assure that India did not misuse reprocessed fuel. He noted that under the agreement, 14 of India's 22 nuclear plants would come under IAEA monitoring for the first time, as well as the planned reprocessing facility and any future breeder reactors, which produce more nuclear fuel than they consume.

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