In a move that reflects the Soviet move into Afghanistan and a bending of its own policy on the spread of atomic weapons, the State Department yesterday recommended that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approve the sale of 38 tons of enriched uranium to India.
Acknowledging that the uncertain conditions in Iran and Afghanistan played a "strong role" in the recommendation, Carter administration sources said the State Department must move to strengthen relations with India. Sources insisted the recommendation meant no change in its policy on the spread of nuclear weapons, though it clearly was reinterpreting that policy to bolster relations with India.
"The holdup of this uranium shipment was at least an irritant to those relations," one source said. "We would hope this removes that irritant."
While the State Department recommended shipment of the fuel to India, both the NRC and Congress may object to the shipment on grounds that it violates the provisions of the 1978 Nonproliferation Act. That law required that countries receiving nuclear fuel from the United States either sign the Nonproliferation Treaty banning the spread of nuclear weapons or open up all their nuclear facilities to open inspections.
India has done neither and has shown no signs of willingness to do so. Carter administration sources conceded yesterday that two years of talks with India over these issues had produced the same negative Indian response.
Despite the lack of progress in those talks, administration sources insisted they were within provisions of the law in recommending the fuel be shipped to India. Sources said the law provided a "grace period" for shipments whose export licenses were requested before the law went into effect in March 1980.
The 38 tons of fuel for India represent two separate export license applications to the NRC, each one for 19 tons of fuel bound for the Indian atomic power station at Tarapur, north of Bombay. The first application was filed in September 1978, the second a year later.
Both export licenses now move to the NRC, where they stand a good chance of being rejected by the five commissioners. Carter administration sources acknowledged this possibility yesterday but said that President Carter was ready to use White House authority and order their shipment over NRC objections.
The State Department asked the NRC to move rapidly on the first application, which probably means an NRC vote on the application in the next 10 days. If the NRC rejects the export license and the president overrides the commissioners' rejection, the license moves to Congress where it must rest barring congressional action for 60 days of continuous session to become law.
Congress can hold up the fuel shipments by issuing a concurrent resolution of both the House and Senate against the shipment.
The second export application also moves to the NRC, which has 120 days to act on it. If the NRC rejects the second export license, the president can override it again and it, too, will move to Congress for 60 days before becoming approved.
"Congress must face up to the hard realities" of present conditions in South Asia," one administration source said. "Failure to ship this fuel to India would jeopardize U.S. relations with India."
The 38 tons of uranium represent about two years of fuel for the nuclear power station at Tarapur, which is right now operating at less than full power to conserve its fuel. Normally, raw uranium fuel is shipped to India, which takes about nine months to fabricate it into fuel rods for use in Tarapur.
India's next export license request for uranium will be a critical test of U.S. policy on weapons spread, since it will clearly fall under the Nonproliferation Act, which prohibits uranium shipments not complying with the law. There will be no room in the next license request for interpretation of the "grace period" provision.
"We've made no decision on how the next shipment is to be treated," one administration source said. "We realize it will raise the question of full-scope safeguards [open inspections] under the law."
The United States entered into an agreement almost 10 years ago to supply uranium to the power station at Tarapur until 1993.
In another development, the House Science and Technology Committee ordered the Energy Department to design and construct four nuclear test burial sites as a provision of DOE's 1981 authorization bill. In a unanimous vote, the committee said that one site must be completed by 1986, a second by 1987 and the last two by 1990.
The committee directed DOE to locate the first two burial sites by the first quarter of 1981 and the second two by the end of 1983. All moves are in sharp contrast to the nuclear waste policy recently put forth by Carter, who called for formulation of a plan to dispose of nuclear waste by 1985.