The Carter administration has decided to supply India with several months worth of uranium fuel for its big atomic power reactor on condition that the two countries open broad talks on their future nuclear relations.
Informed sources said the U.S. decision has been broached informally to New Delhi and will be officially proposed soon by the arriving U.S. ambassador, Robert Goheen.
A large shipment of low-enriched uranium to fuel the U.S. manufactured power reactor at Tarapur has been held up for nearly a year because of concern about India's atomic policies. The decision to permit an interim shipment was described as an effort to head off a power shutdown while encouraging the new Indian government to adopt anti-explosion policies.
In the first intimation of the U.S. decision, Joseph S. Nye Jr., the State Department's senior nuclear expert, told a Senate Foreign Relations sub-committee that the United States is prepared to enter broad talks with India "on a wide variety of objectives in the nonproliferation field." He said the decision on the Tarapur fuel would be placed in the context of the broader talks.
Some statements by Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who assumed office in late March after an election upset over Indira Gandhi, have been "very encouraging" from the U.S. viewpoint, Nye said.
India, which became the sixth nation with an explosion capability after an underground blast in May, 1974, is of crucial importance in the drive to contain the spread of atomic weapons.
Continued Indian blasts would spur the demand of neighboring Pakistan and other Third World nations for their own A-bomb capability. However, an Indian decision to forge future blasts would improve the chances of keeping the bombs in check.
Desai has taken no definitive position about "peaceful nuclear explosion," which is what India calls its 1974 blast. The day he took office, Desai said he did not know if such explosions are necessary, and if they are not, "it should never be done."
In a press conference May 16, he said that if a peaceful explosion is necessary "we will certainly do it," but would announce it and invite foreign and Indian observers.
As was the case with his predecessor, Desai renounced "automic weapons" as a matter of Indian policy. On May 16, Desai seemed to go further than previous statments, saying that "atomic weapons are no good for defense at all ... They can't ever win a war." He added that "if we remain firm about it (atomic policy), we can help in the process of removing nuclear weapons from the world, and that is the task we are engaged in."
Desai revealed last month that the Indian govermnent has informed the United States of the "adverse effect" that a further delay in the atomic fuel shipment could have on India's power supply.
If there is a delay beyond May, the operation of the Tarapur station - which provides light and power for much of the Bombay region - could be affected by mid-1978, according to Desai. U.S. officials explained that the fabrication plant that manufactures fuel rods for Tarapur is running out of its uranium material.
The Tarapur shipment would meet the minimum criteria for approval under President Carter's new nuclear export policy, since India has agreed that none of this fuel would be used for an explosive device.
However, the Carter policy also calls for the upgrading of existing automic agreements to require international safeguards on all nuclear materials and facilities in a country receiving U.S. exports. This is expected to be among the topics for the forthcoming U.S. Indian atomic negotiations.
Meanwhile, Carter's antiproliferation campaign received a boost as the House International Relations Committee recommended by voice vote that the House halt construction of the Clinch River, Tenn., power plant, fueled by plutinium, which can be used to make atomic bombs. The vote came during action on the energy research and development authorization bill. A House Appropriations subcommittee voted to delete funds for the plant from a mony bill the full committee is to vote on today. Two weeks ago, the House Science committee voted to continue the fast breeder project, subject to possible reconsideration after hearings scheduled for next month.