India-U.S. civil nuclear cooperation “an important piece of unfinished business”: U.S. official

Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources Geoffrey R. Pyatt says “our cooperation has become so broad and so deep and that would not have been possible if we had not removed the nuclear choke point in our strategic relationship”

Updated - February 05, 2024 10:57 pm IST

Published - February 05, 2024 10:53 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

US Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources Geoffrey R. Pyatt.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources Geoffrey R. Pyatt. | Photo Credit: PTI

Terming the India-U.S. nuclear cooperation envisaged under the nuclear deal two decades ago as “an important piece of unfinished business”, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources Geoffrey R. Pyatt said on Monday there is a “shared interest” to figure out how the two countries can move forward, both on the large traditional reactors which were foreseen as part of the nuclear deal but also importantly the “fantastic new opportunities” that are emerging around Small and Modular Reactor (SMR) technology.

Elaborating on the civil nuclear cooperation, Mr. Pyatt referred to the conversations he had in India especially at the India-U.S. Forum and said he found strong interest from Indian companies, including Adani, Tata, Reliance, Birla, all of whom have expressed interest in using SMRs as part of their larger decarbonisation strategy.

“Now to move forward on that a couple of things have to happen. One is our companies in the U.S., companies in India, companies elsewhere have to figure out how to scale these SMR concepts to take the designs that have been developed and get them to the stage of regulatory approval and industrial deployment. But the other thing that will have to happen in India is a revision of law to enable private companies to participate in the civil nuclear sector as private utilities do here in the U.S. So, this is going to take time, but it’s a natural area of convergence,” he said in response to a question from The Hindu while addressing a virtual press conference.

Mr. Pyatt was in India from January 26 to 31 during which he visited New Delhi and Hyderabad. In New Delhi among a series of engagements, he also attended the India-U.S. Forum hosted by Ananta Centre.

Indian regulations have held up the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal between Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) and Westinghouse Electric Company (WEC) for the construction of six nuclear reactors in Kovvada, Andhra Pradesh, eight years after Modi-Obama announced the nuclear deal is done, and worked a way around the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, there is still no techno-commercial offer.

SMR demonstrator

In line with this, he referred to one company Holtec International which is currently targeting to have their 1st SMR demonstrator deployed in Michigan by 2029, which he termed “in the nuclear sector is basically tomorrow” and discussions are going on in multiple levels across governments and private sector.

In this regard, Mr. Pyatt, who is familiar with India, having served in the U.S. Embassy here, said what was driven home for him by the “really good” discussions at the India-U.S. Forum is “how much we have delivered in terms of our strategic cooperation across the broad range of U.S.-India equities.” Referring to a question at the forum to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, which was held under Chatam House rule but stating that wouldn’t mind being quoted on one particular issue, was whether “the level of U.S. India cooperation today in 2024 has lived up to the expectations that we all had 20 years ago when the U.S.-India nuclear deal was promulgated.”

He said Mr. Jaishankar’s response was exactly the same as his, that in fact “we have gone much, much faster than anybody anticipated two decades ago” and added in that context, “...and then our cooperation has become so broad and so deep and that would not have been possible if we had not removed the nuclear choke point in our strategic relationship.”

Climate change

Speaking of his conversations in India on clean energy and climate change, the Assistant Secretary stressed on getting away from Chinese domination of clean technology supply chains. In this regard, he emphasises in the Indian case, using India’s capacities in manufacturing and labour costs to build up a real alternative supply chain, recognising that going forward “one of the pacing factors in the success or failure of our collective energy transition” is going to be our ability to scale the supply chains for everything from solar cells to wind turbines to hydrogen electrolyzers.

In response to a question on volatility in the energy markets in the last couple of years and ways to mitigate that, Mr. Pyatt said in the face of that destabilisation, we all need friends and allies and noted that incident of the British-operated oil tanker MV Marlin Luanda that was hit by antiship ballistic missile in the Gulf of Aden, launched by the Iranian backed Houthi militants and the Indian Navy’s intervention and also deploying fire-fighting teams to douse the flames and rescue the crew.

Of course, the U.S. Navy has a significant presence in the Red Sea, he said, referring to the aircraft carriers, but it was the Indian Navy that came to the rescue of that ship. “But it was so striking to see that the videos of the Indian firefighters on board and then I saw some tick tocks with the captain of that ship afterwards expressing tremendous gratitude to the Indian Navy for having saved his ship,” he said, adding it illustrates how India’s capacity as a net security provider in the wider region benefits the U.S. He added that the ‘Asian Quad’ was created for that kind of cooperation and stressed that “we’re going to need more and more of that kind of partnership as we look to the future especially as we try to navigate this particularly disruptive moment...”

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