January 18, 2006

US aims to set aside India reactor controversy

By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration, confronting
a potential threat to its 2005 nuclear deal with India, has
signaled it will set aside concerns that New Delhi violated a
previous agreement with the United States.

In documents released by a Senate panel, the State
Department said it could not determine whether the project in
question -- a 40 megawatt nuclear reactor called Cirus -- had
violated a 1956 U.S.-India contract.

Some experts say the project violated past Indian
assurances that U.S. nuclear material would be used only for
peaceful uses, not weapons, and this called into question
India's trustworthiness as a future nuclear partner.

But Undersecretary of State for Non-proliferation Robert
Joseph said "a conclusive answer (on whether a violation
occurred) has not been possible."

Rather than spend time on Cirus, "the administration
believes the most productive approach is to focus on India's
new commitments under (the July 18, 2005) joint statement," he
told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The agreement, which must be approved by the U.S. Congress,
would give India access to nuclear technology, including fuel
and reactors, and commit New Delhi to place nuclear facilities
associated with its civilian energy program under international

Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of State for political
affairs, is due in New Delhi on January 19 to work on the deal,
aiming to show progress when President George W. Bush visits
India in late February or early March.

For 30 years, the United States led the effort to deny
India nuclear technology because it tested and developed
nuclear weapons in contravention of international norms. India
has refused to sign the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

But Bush now views India, a rising democratic and economic
power on China's border, as an evolving core U.S. ally and the
new nuclear deal is central to that vision.


The controversy revolves around a Canada-supplied nuclear
reactor located north of Mumbai, which produces a significant
amount of India's weapons grade plutonium.

Canada cut off nuclear cooperation with India in 1974 after
plutonium from Cirus was used in India's first nuclear test. At
the time, India called the test "peaceful." It resumed testing
in 1998 and now acknowledges its nuclear weapons capability.

The United States is affected because it supplied Cirus
with "heavy water," which is used to moderate nuclear fission.

Asked about Cirus by Sen. Richard Lugar, the committee
chairman, Joseph said India also had its own heavy water and
heavy water from an unnamed third country in the reactor.

After the 1974 nuclear test, Washington examined whether
India's actions complied with the 1956 contract, which said
U.S. heavy water could only be used for peaceful purpose.

But a "conclusive answer was not possible" because of
uncertainty over whether U.S. heavy water was used in producing
plutonium for the test and because India and the United States
disagreed on the contract's scope, Joseph said.

Gary Milhollin of the independent Wisconsin Project on
Nuclear Arms Control said Joseph's statement was "flatly
wrong," while Henry Sokolski of the Non-proliferation Policy
Education Center called it "unbelievable and shameful."

"We know in fact that plutonium produced by the Cirus
reactor was produced with U.S. heavy water," Milhollin told

Joseph rebuffed Lugar's suggestion that Washington ask
India for a full accounting, saying "the administration
believes the most productive approach is to focus on India's
new commitments" under the 2005 nuclear deal, including
allowing U.N. monitors to inspect civilian nuclear facilities.

Milhollin said the administration is afraid to press
further because "they don't want to know" and don't want to
have to hold India to account.