Russia on Wednesday defended its plans to sell nuclear fuel to India as western governments and advocates of arms control voiced concern that international guidelines were being weakened at a critical juncture for the global system of nuclear non-proliferation.

Controversy over the deal highlights the complexities facing the Bush administration in promoting its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership – a plan to marry energy security with arms control by providing for an elite club of industrialised nations to supply developing countries with nuclear fuel before taking it back.

Ahead of Thursday’s meeting of Group of Eight energy ministers in Moscow, Samuel Bodman, US energy secretary, on Wednesday called for international support for the plan, saying the US and Russia had a special responsibility to be “good stewards of the enormous nuclear legacy of the cold war”.

But Russia, the host of the G8 meeting, has upset fellow members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group by deciding supply 60 tonnes of nuclear fuel to India, which is not a member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

A spokesman for Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia’s federal atomic energy agency, insisted the delivery of uranium would comply with the NSG’s guidelines on nuclear fuel exports, which permitted such deliveries under an exception clause when safety was at stake. Russia considered this delivery to India to be covered by that clause, the spokesman added, echoing a similar stance by India’s foreign ministry. A spokeswoman for Mr Bodman, in Moscow, said Russia’s plan to supply India with fuel had not been discussed during a meeting with Mr Kiriyenko.

The Russian agency’s spokesman said India’s Tarapur reactors were now operating with fuel that had been burned out beyond the projected levels, which affected its safety, since India did not have sufficient enrichment capacity to replace the fuel itself.

Despite such assurances, member states of the NSG – an informal association that sets guidelines for trading in nuclear materials – were generally unhappy with Russia’s decision although there was little they could do about it, diplomats said.

“There is general discontent with Russia,” a senior diplomat said, dismissing the argument that Russia had to supply fuel for safety reasons. “But these are guidelines not rules,” he said of NSG principles intended to stop the supply of nuclear material to states such as India, Pakistan and Israel that have not signed the NPT.

India’s foreign ministry said the Russian decision conformed with the July 18 agreement between President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Washington. Mr Bush then, the Indian foreign ministry in New Delhi noted, committed the US to working with “friends and allies to adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy co-operation and trade with India, including but not limited to expeditious consideration of fuel supplies for safeguarded reactors at Tarapur.”

The US State Department expressed concern over the deal. But analysts noted that its criticism was much more muted than in 2001 when the US protested at Russia’s decision then to supply fuel to Tarapur, which is under UN safeguards.

“The US is in an extremely awkward position,” commented Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, a non-partisan group that promotes effective arms control policies. “Through its agreement with India last July, the Bush administration has ceded much of its authority and credibility to object to actions by states that break NSG rules.”

Mr Kimball warned that China, also a member of the NSG, would likely argue that it should be allowed to restart its nuclear trade with Pakistan.

Such concerns were voiced by opponents of the US-India agreement, which, if approved by Congress, would allow India to enter the global nuclear market and keep its weapons and some facilities beyond international inspectors.

“If Russia goes forth with the sale of nuclear material to India without consensus from the NSG, this will begin a new era in which the rules that governed nuclear trade for decades are gradually swept away,” said Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman, said on Tuesday that deals to supply India with fuel should move forward “on the basis of steps that India will take, but has not yet taken” under the nuclear deal that was settled during President Bush’s visit to India this month.

Separately, the G8 is considering a plan to promote a broad expansion of civil nuclear power, part of Russia’s focus on international energy security. According to a leaked draft of its “action plan” on energy, the G8 will call for the development of a new generation of nuclear reactors that can reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation and eliminate problems with radioactive waste.

Additional reporting by Jo Johnson

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