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Stage set for nuclear separation talks

Manmohan was asked to choose from options put forth by the Department of Atomic Energy

Siddharth Varadarajan

New Delhi: With the expert group headed by Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran now en route to Washington, India is set to hold the most detailed round of discussions to date with the U.S. on the planned separation of its civilian and military nuclear facilities.

However, senior officials familiar with the issue told The Hindu on Monday that the two sides were not expected to clinch a deal this time, and that additional rounds of technical talks would be necessary before mutually acceptable specific reciprocal commitments could finally be worked out.

According to official sources, the Department of Atomic Energy had prepared a number of options and scenarios for the proposed separation, involving the inclusion and exclusion of different facilities. While the officials declined to elaborate they said all the scenarios had been crafted to ensure two minimum outcomes: preserving the flexibility and robustness of the Indian strategic programme, and ensuring the long-term energy security of the country based on the development of indigenous resources and technologies.

"These options have been put to the country's leadership at the highest level, and the decision taken at that level will drive the Indian negotiating team's stance" in the crucial December 21 meeting of the India-U.S. working group on civil nuclear cooperation.

Asked about the fate of the CIRUS research reactor, the fast breeder reactor, MAPS at Kalpakkam and other indigenous plants and facilities, a senior official told The Hindu that any public airing of the final plan that the leadership settles on — or indeed of any scenarios the DAE had presented to the Prime Minister — would compromise the Indian ability to negotiate.

The officials also expressed surprise at the fact that sections of the Government which were not involved in the decision-making process, and which did not understand the parameters involved, were busy floating options. They added that many people inside and outside the Government mistakenly believed that India needed fissile material only for its strategic programme and were projecting scenarios of separation on that basis.

However, the fact, they said, was that the country needed a lot of fissile material for its long-term energy security.

The officials stressed that it was not useful to think of the forthcoming meeting — which is only the second time experts from the two sides are meeting — as the occasion when all outstanding issues flowing from the July 18, 2005 India-U.S. nuclear agreement would be settled. "The Americans are keen to settle matters before President Bush comes here next year but there is plenty of time between now and then," an official said.

The issues to be sorted out — separation, sequencing and safeguards — were complicated and the Indian side saw no reason to telescope its technical decision-making process to fit an artificial, political deadline, the officials added.

The Indian negotiating team includes two members from the Ministry of External Affairs, in addition to the Foreign Secretary, and two members from the DAE.

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