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London meet failed to bridge differences over 123 pact

Siddharth Varadarajan

Further rounds of technical discussions necessary to address India's concerns

New Delhi: Despite India's insistence that the draft 123 agreement cannot treat it as a non-nuclear weapons state as far as the implications of a nuclear test under domestic U.S. statute are concerned, American negotiators say the administration's hands are tied by the Atomic Energy Act and the Hyde Act passed by Congress last December.

During last week's technical talks in London, all the U.S. side was willing to concede was the possibility that the penalties and liabilities flowing from any future nuclear test could be "padded" to make them less onerous for India. But this would still involve India conceding that a future test could have adverse legal consequences.

Deal killer

The second major issue on which no progress was made in the London meeting is another deal killer — the American refusal to accept India's demand for the inclusion within the 123 of reprocessing rights for spent fuel produced by any U.S. reactors the country may import.

Potential difficulties

On this, as well as the question of India accessing reprocessing and enrichment equipment and technology, the U.S. said the agreement could incorporate "forward looking language" but this falls short of the kind of water-tight commitment India says it needs. Though reprocessing rights belong entirely in the domain of executive policy, Indian officials said the American side is citing potential difficulties with Congress as one reason why the 123 agreement cannot give India prior consent.

As for fuel-supply guarantees and fall-back safeguards, each side remains wary of the other's draft language.

Concerns raised

At the London meeting, say officials, the Indian side raised a number of questions linked to lacunae in the Hyde Act passed by Congress last December as well to concerns emanating from the U.S. draft of the 123 agreement. "These questions have yet to be answered," said one official.

General assessment

Though Indian officials anticipate Mr. Burns would like to make one final attempt to strike a deal in the run-up to next week's meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush at the G-8 forum in Germany, the general assessment is that further rounds of technical discussions will be necessary to address India's concerns.

Indeed, the timing of Mr. Burns' impending visit has taken South Block somewhat by surprise since at least two important members of the Indian negotiating team are scheduled to be away at the time.

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