March 14, 2006

India Says Russia to Supply Fuel to Atomic Plants

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India will receive uranium from Russia to run two atomic power plants that have struggled to find fuel after the United States stopped supplies more than three decades ago, the Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.

Moscow's decision to supply fuel to India's Tarapur nuclear power plants came nearly two weeks after New Delhi and Washington sealed a landmark deal which aims to give India access to atomic equipment and fuel from the United States, and eventually from other nuclear nations.

Russia, a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) -- an informal club of nations that control global nuclear trade -- cannot supply fuel to countries like India which have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

But Moscow would send the shipment under an NSG "Safety Exception Clause" which allows fuel transfers if there is reason to believe that starving a reactor of fuel could result in a nuclear hazard, Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna said.

"At India's request, Russia has agreed to supply a limited amount of uranium fuel for the safeguarded units 1 and 2 of the Tarapur atomic power station," Sarna told a news conference.

"The shortage of fuel for Tarapur would have affected its continued operations under reliable and safe conditions," Sarna said, adding that Russia had informed the NSG about the move.

Five years ago, the United States strongly opposed a similar move by Russia.

But now that Washington has agreed to abandon long-time prohibitions on nuclear transfers to India, "we think that deals to supply that fuel should move forward on the basis of the joint initiative, on the basis of steps that India will take, but has not yet taken," State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters.

Democratic Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts said the Russian fuel arrangement showed other nations are rushing to cut their own special deals with India and the benefits of the U.S.-India nuclear agreement to America are "illusory."

"If Russia goes forth with the sale of nuclear material to India without consensus from the NSG, this will begin a new era in which the rules that governed nuclear trade for decades are gradually swept away," said Markey, co-chairman of the congressional bipartisan task force on non-proliferation.

The Tarapur plants were built by U.S. firm General Electric in the 1960s but Washington stopped fuel supplies after New Delhi conducted its first nuclear tests in 1974.

The two plants received fuel intermittently from France and Russia and the last supplies were made by Moscow in 2001, provoking American protests.

Russia's latest decision coincides with a trip to New Delhi by Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov later this week.

The two countries were likely to sign a deal during the visit under which Russia would supply India with 60 tons of uranium, the Press Trust of India news agency reported, quoting Indian sources.

The India-U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation deal aims to reverse three decades of global curbs on supplying atomic equipment and fuel to India, a nuclear weapons state.

But the deal needs to be approved by a skeptical U.S. Congress and backed by the NSG before India can get access to foreign nuclear technology and fuel.

(Additional reporting by Carol Giacomo in Washington)