On March 29, the U.S. and India reached an agreement which grants India the right to reprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel, meaning that the landmark U.S.-India nuclear trade deal is one step closer to reality. The text of the agreement was released on March 30.
The reprocessing agreement includes protocols intended to prevent the diversion of U.S.-supplied nuclear materials to India’s weapons program. However, the agreement – like the larger deal it is a part of – increases the potential for proliferation and nuclear terrorism…
Timothy Roemer, U.S. Ambassador to India, announced that the reprocessing deal was “part of the great, win-win narrative of the U.S.-India global partnership.” Other sources, however, note that India has been able to secure significant concessions in the accord.
For one, reprocessing will be monitored by the IAEA rather than U.S. officials, as Indians “did not want direct American oversight with an American flag on them. It is a symbolic, sovereignty issue for Indians.” The only other countries operating under this model are Japan and EURATOM. As Ted Jones of the U.S.-India Business Council noted, “India is now in a special circle. This is a big deal.”
Military facilities and existing stockpiles of nuclear fuel will continue to be exempt from inspections and safeguards. New Delhi has also refused to allow IAEA monitors access to a breeder reactor that can run on plutonium.
While the U.S. will be able to suspend Indian reprocessing rights if a “serious threat” to national security or the physical protection of the reprocessing facility arises, in the case of a suspension of reprocessing rights beyond six months, the U.S. may be required to provide compensation for the adverse effect on the Indian economy resulting from the disruption of electricity generation.
India was also able to secure the right to build additional reprocessing plants in the future. While America had hoped to limit India to one such facility, New Delhi’s argument that it would be risky to transport fuel from reactors to the reprocessing plant through densely populated areas won the day.
The cooperation deal in general is a huge win for India, as they are still not party to the NPT. The Indian exemptions have all been obtained despite the fact that diverted civilian nuclear fuel was used to build New Delhi’s first nuclear weapons three decades ago.
Despite the reprocessing agreement, hurdles remain before U.S. firms can break into the billion dollar Indian nuclear energy market. While two sites have been identified for U.S.-built reactors, no company has yet been able to enter into a contract. As documented on this blog, India must still pass a controversial nuclear-liability law and provide a letter of assurance on nonproliferation.
At the recent Nuclear Security Summit, the 47 participating nations endorsed President Obama’s goal of securing all “loose” nuclear material within four years. Yet the summit largely ignored the dangers posed by reprocessed plutonium. As Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out “At a time when nuclear terrorism and proliferation concerns are only increasing, the United States should be doing everything it can to stop existing reprocessing, not facilitate more.”