NEW DELHI, June 21: Russia breached a long-standing western atomic energy blockade against India by signing an accord on nuclear power reactors.
Under the agreement, signed by visiting Russian atomic energy minister Yevgeni Adamov and Atomic Energy Commission chairman R. Chidambaram today, Russia will sell two nuclear power reactors to be set up in Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu. With this, the nearly two-and-a-half decades of restrictions imposed by the western countries limiting India's access to atomic energy cooperation have come to an end. Chidambaram told newspersons that a detailed project report for the construction of the power plant would be prepared in the next two years and the actual construction work would take another six years.
In clinching the $ 2.6-billion deal with India, Russia is reasserting its determination to sustain a long-term political partnership with India and underscoring its willingness to risk the displeasure of the United States. The deal comes amidst intense western antipathytowards New Delhi following last month's nuclear tests at Pokharan. Russia will build two 1000 megawatt light-water reactors of the advanced VVER-type at Koodankulam. The reactors are expected to boost India's sagging atomic power programme and provide an important advanced technology market for Russia.
India and Russia have agreed to put the Koodankulam nuclear power station under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The safeguards, however, will be limited to this station -- in other words, the international control will be ``facility-specific'' and not ``fullscope'' safeguards, in the sense they will not cover India's entire nuclear programme. This precisely is where the Koodankulam deal has drawn fire from the US. The Clinton Administration has opposed the project by arguing that Russia is violating its international commitment to insist on fullscope safeguards on its nuclear exports to non-nuclear states. US officials point to the Russian acceptance of guidelines among nuclearsuppliers in 1992 that mandate fullscope safeguards on all nuclear sales.
Russia has argued that the rules agreed to among members of the so-called Nuclear Suppliers Group do not apply to nuclear agreements negotiated prior to 1992. Discussions between India and Russia on a nuclear reactor deal began way back in 1979 and were finalised in an agreement between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in November 1988.
The deal, which went through difficult moments after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, has finally come to fruition after intensive negotiations in recent years.
The Clinton Administration insists that the deal be treated as a new one and not be ``grandfathered'' or predated from the new rules that Russia has accepted.
But with the US itself planning to export a large number of reactors to China, Russia does not see why it has to forego its nuclear cooperation with India.
The Koodankulam reactors will use low-enriched Uranium as fuel, which will beimported from Russia. Although India has an enrichment facility in Ratnahalli in Karnataka, it is not yet in a position to produce the large quantities of fuel required for the station.
Having learnt a bitter lesson from its Tarapore experience, when the US reneged on a commitment to supply enriched Uranium for the plant, the Koodankulam agreement comes with ironclad guarantees from Russia for lifelong supplies of fuel for the plant.
The international non-proliferation community is likely to scrutinise the deal carefully for its provisions on technology transfer. They would be looking to see if Russia will treat this nuclear sale to India as a one-off exception to the NSG rules or whether Moscow has plans for long-term civilian nuclear cooperation with India.
The Department of Atomic Energy, after years of focussing on generating nuclear power through indigenous technology, has now decided to augment the programme through the import of reactors from abroad. Although a number of vendors from the US,France and Japan have shown interest in the Indian nuclear market, right now they are daunted by the political obstacles in the form of the existing non-proliferation regime to such cooperation with India.
French leaders, however, have seen civilian nuclear cooperation with India as a way of inducing New Delhi to join the global non-proliferation regime. The big question now is whether France will also step into the breach made by Russia in the atomic energy blockade against India.
Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.