U.S. Push to Expand India's Nuclear Trade Draws Skepticism

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Bush administration proposal to exempt India from restriction on nuclear trade has aroused skepticism from several members of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, diplomats said yesterday, making it increasingly unlikely that a deal will be reached in two-day meetings that begin today in Vienna.

Both India and the United States have lobbied the group for approval of a landmark civil nuclear deal. But the NSG, which governs trade in reactors and uranium, operates by consensus, allowing even small nations to block or significantly amend any agreement.

Indian officials have warned nations that a failure to support the nuclear deal could harm relations. But U.S. officials said they increasingly believe an agreement will not be reached this week. Instead, they said, a second NSG meeting probably will need to be held next month, leaving little time for final approval by Congress this fall.

The Hyde Act, a 2006 bill that gave preliminary approval to the U.S.-India pact, officially requires that Congress be in 30 days of continuous session to consider the deal. But Congress cannot take up the agreement until the NSG blesses it, and lawmakers plan to adjourn for the year on Sept. 26.

India is among a handful of countries that have never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. After India conducted a nuclear test in 1974, the United States had pushed to create the NSG to close loopholes that had allowed India to advance its weapons program through supposedly peaceful nuclear cooperation. The controls have been so effective that India's use of nuclear power has been severely limited, amounting to about 3 percent of the country's installed electricity capacity.

The nuclear pact -- and a U.S. draft proposal to exempt India from the NSG trade rules with few conditions -- have aroused protest from nonproliferation specialists, who argue that such moves will greatly weaken efforts to control the spread of nuclear materials. But the United States has won over some skeptical nations by arguing that increasing India's access to nuclear power will help ease global warming, diplomats said.

Although undecided countries such as Canada, Japan and Australia have signaled in recent days that they will support the deal -- which President Bush considers part of his foreign policy legacy -- several nations, including New Zealand and Ireland, have expressed concerns about the U.S. draft proposal.

"We've raised questions throughout the process, particularly in relation to the implications to the nonproliferation treaty," said an Irish diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities. He acknowledged that "it is a very important document for the U.S. and India" and that "we are actively engaged in ongoing discussions."

Condoleezza Rice last month made the first visit to New Zealand by a U.S. secretary of state in nine years, in part to lobby for the deal. But Prime Minister Helen Clark recently said, "It would be no secret that we would like to see more conditionalities around the agreement," adding that "we are pursuing this diplomatically with like-minded countries."

More than 150 nongovernmental organizations and nonproliferation experts from 24 countries last week sent a letter to NSG members appealing for significant conditions to be placed on India, such as promising to terminate trade if New Delhi resumed nuclear testing.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent Rice a letter earlier this month saying he found it "incomprehensible" that the administration is seeking an NSG exemption for India with "few or none of the conditions" contained in the Hyde Act. He warned that a failure to include such conditions in the NSG agreement would doom consideration of the U.S.-India deal in the current Congress.

"A lot of people have raised questions, and many people think [the civil nuclear deal] does not fit into the nonproliferation framework. That is not our view," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood. He added that securing India's relationship with the United States and reducing carbon emissions were additional benefits of the agreement.

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