India closer to nuclear pact with US

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India has pledged to explore “peaceful uses of nuclear energy” with Brazil and South Africa in an agreement that could bolster a proposed deal with the US allowing it access to nuclear technology for civilian purposes.

Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, this week met Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president, and Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa, at a three-way trade summit in Brasília that aimed to forge closer ties between the countries.

In a joint statement the leaders agreed to “explore approaches to co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy under appropriate safeguards”.

“International civilian nuclear co-operation, under appropriate International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, among countries committed to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation objectives could be enhanced through acceptable forward-looking approaches consistent with their respective national and international obligations,” said the statement.

The US has prohibited civil nuclear co-operation with India for 30 years because the country developed nuclear weapons and has not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. But US President George W. Bush last year agreed to allow India access to nuclear technology if it separated military and civilian nuclear plants and opened the latter to international inspectors.

The treaty was passed by the US House of Representatives in July but has yet to come before the Senate. India must also negotiate safeguards with the IAEA and gain approval from other nuclear regulators.

The Indo-US nuclear agreement was top of the agenda at a US-India Economic Summit in New Delhi this week where leaders outlined goals to boost bilateral trade from $26.8bn last year to $60bn within three years.

The positions of Brazil and South Africa are important because they are part of the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, which regulates nuclear materials. Brazil currently chairs the NSG.

“NSG functions on the basis of consensus,” said K Subrahmanyam, former member of India’s national security advisory board. “They have to say yes as a group for the US to supply technology to India.”

The nuclear pact would help India meet enormous energy demand, pave the way for an “enhanced role” on the international stage and stimulate US and Indian business, David Mulford, US ambassador to India, told summit delegates.

New legislation would “bring about a cascade of revisions in India’s international status – opening the nuclear market not only for American companies but also for the entire international community,” he said.

Shri Pranab Mukherjee, India’s defence minister, said the prohibitions on access to nuclear technology formed “an invisible barrier to trade and investment.”

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