The inter-governmental agreement (IGA) on nuclear cooperation signed during the just-concluded visit to Moscow of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh further cements Russia’s role as a vital and trusted partner of India and its civil nuclear energy programme. Although the details of the agreement have not yet been made public, Indian officials have confirmed that it provides the basis for broad cooperation across the full spectrum of the nuclear fuel cycle without any of the unreasonable conditionalities attaching to nuclear commerce with the United States. The ‘123 Agreement,’ for example, provides for lifetime fuel supply guarantees for any American reactors sold to India but also allows Washington to demand the return of fuel stocks and even nuclear components in the event that it chooses to terminate cooperation for any reason. In contrast, the Russian agreement says the termination of cooperation would be without prejudice to the implementation of ongoing contracts. The crucial international relations principle involved here is that there shall be no unilaterally determined disruption of agreed fuel deliveries. The new IGA also grants India upfront and unqualified consent rights to reprocess spent Russian fuel so long as this is done under international safeguards. In contrast, while the 123 text speaks of upfront consent, the detailed arrangements and procedures, including the conditions under which the U.S. can suspend this consent, are still being negotiated, with the deadline only some weeks away.
The Russian willingness to accommodate Indian concerns about fuel supply and reprocessing is of a piece with Moscow’s long-term strategic approach to nuclear cooperation with India. In 2001, Russia defied the U.S. by supplying low-enriched uranium to India for use at Tarapur despite being a party to NSG rules prohibiting this sale. This happened again in 2006, when the U.S. and India were still working through the fine print of the July 2005 nuclear deal. Though Russia lacked the confidence and heft to get the NSG to change its rules, its strong support for the lifting of sanctions allowed India to extract a better deal from the 45-nation cartel than Washington, and especially Congress, might like to have seen. Armed with the NSG waiver and the new IGA, not to speak of the equally advantageous Indo-French agreement, India knows nuclear cooperation with Russia and France will be more fruitful, predictable, and secure than what the U.S. offers. As New Delhi enters the final round of talks with the Obama administration on reprocessing, it should remind the American side that the more onerous and unreasonable its demands, the less likely India would be to buy American reactors. It would be foolish indeed on India’s part to commit tens of billions of dollars on American nuclear equipment if there was even the slightest chance that fuel supplies or components or reprocessing consent would be suspended. Least of all when there are better alternatives in hand.