India and US have bridged key differences towards finalising a pact on the arrangements and procedures for reprocessing US-origin spent fuel. The text,sources said,was almost sealed at expert-level talks last week and the negotiations are practically over with no more meetings likely to be held now.
It is,however,learnt that the text agreed between the negotiating teams still has to obtain formal approval of the political leadership in both countries. The text will have to be cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security here while Washington too will need to play it back to the White House.
Given that each phase of the talks were being closely monitored by top officials in respective governments,sources said the two sides were hopeful of an early closure to the negotiations. With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh slated to visit the US next month for the Nuclear Security Summit,the government is keen that this last step of the Indo-US civil nuclear initiative be completed in time.
Once done,the agreement will allow India to reprocess US-origin spent fuel for its civilian programme and,more importantly,it will serve as a template for other foreign-origin spent fuel too. Under the Indo-US 123 agreement,US had agreed to grant India the right to reprocess but it was stipulated that this could only be operationalised after a bilateral agreement on arrangements and procedures for reprocessing such fuel had been reached. These negotiations were aimed at finalising this pact.
To ensure that political exigencies do not force US to hold back on this commitment later,India had also won an assurance to conclude the negotiations within one year of starting the talks. The conversation started last July and there was hope that these would be concluded by last November itself when the PM travelled to Washington on a state visit.
However,both sides got stuck on tricky issues with US officials insisting that India give the non-proliferation assurances as enshrined in the US Atomic Energy Act. New Delhi,on its part,made it clear that it would not step beyond the template of assurances enshrined in the 123 agreement,which itself had been arrived at after tough negotiations.
While this was resolved subsequently by way of introducing language acceptable to both sides,the other issue was that of the termination clause. This appears to have been more tricky than expected but,sources said,a way forward has been achieved in the meeting held in India last week.
The talks were led by R B Grover of the Department of Atomic Energy on the Indian side while the US delegation was led by Richard Stratford,the non-proliferation and disarmament expert in the State Department.
The third issue pertained to the number of fuel storage and reprocessing facilities as well as their security. It may be noted that the understanding reached during the 123 negotiations was that India will set up a dedicated reprocessing facility for US and other foreign-origin fuel under IAEA safeguards. During these negotiations,India proposed that it be allowed to set up not just one but multiple facilities. The US,sources said,does seem to have accepted this proposal.
Given that the government is pushing for a quick passage of the Civil Nuclear Liabilities Bill in this session,indications are that all key government processes linked with the nuclear deal will be concluded soon,as prioritised by the PM himself.