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Sarkozy’s India Visit: The Nuclear Fallout
India is readying to get the first lot of nuclear reactors

Sarkozy’s India Visit: The Nuclear Fallout

India is readying to get the first lot of nuclear reactors

India is readying to get the first lot of nuclear reactors, for which the famous US-India nuclear deal paved the way. But it is not getting them from any suppliers of the United States.

On December 6, 2010, France took many by surprise by becoming the first country to sign agreements to build nuclear reactors in India. The event came 12 years after India’s nuclear weapon tests (of May 11, 1998) and two years after the deal preceded by the death of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group’s anti-India sanctions (October 8 and September 6, 2008, respectively).

It was French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to India from December 4 to 7 that helped the Indian nuclear establishment’s dream come true after all that frustrating delay. US President Barack Obama’s India mission from November 6 to 8, too, had its nuclear dimension. He did reassure his hosts that his past record in the Senate as an opponent of the deal need not deter US-India nuclear trade now. The visit, however, left details of this post-deal nuclear partnership to be worked out later.

Sarkozy, on the other hand, along with India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, presided over five agreements to set up the first two of a total of six reactors in Jaitapur in the State of Maharashtra. With this marketing coup, France’s state-run Areva has pipped its US and Japanese competitors to the post. Lyrical, official prose hailed the pacts, which will cost this poor country $25 billion as “path-breaking” and the world’s largest single lot of such agreements. The mandarins and the media friendly to them are not even counting the other costs for the party not consulted – the people of India.

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These need to be counted in view of a major issue involved in India’s nuclear negotiations with both the US and France. The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, adopted by India’s Parliament in August 2010, has received flak among the county’s would-be nuclear collaborators for raising fears among foreign suppliers of technology, equipment or fuel for a flurry of reactors.

The original draft bill had largely spared the suppliers and placed the main liability on local operators, practically meaning the public sector Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited. The bill raised a storm of protest for seeking to penalize India’s taxpayers, in effect, for the apprehended nuclear disasters. As many as 18 amendments, moved during the parliamentary debate under public pressure, were incorporated into the act. These placed some limited liability for the anticipated accidents on the suppliers.

The multinational nuclear corporates, however, have remained unsatisfied, while New Delhi has been willing to address their concerns through promises of special and specific bilateral arrangements. On the eve of the Obama visit, India signed the international Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage and the president’s negotiating team was assured of action to ensure “a level playing field” for the US companies. It is on this issue that France has stolen a march over the US.

Announcing the signing of the Jaitapur agreement, Areva’s Chief Executive Anne Lauvergeon went out of her way to stress that the liability law that US firms were complaining sorely about was not a “deal breaker” for the French company. India’s former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal said: “All they want is clarification on how India plans to implement the legislation whereas … the US companies are not willing to accept any liability or any right to recourse.”

All the powers-that-be involved have thus been engaged in working out deals to deny India’s people anything like an adequate compensation in case of man-made disasters. This, however, did not prevent India and France from signing two showpiece agreements on cooperation in nuclear safety. The first, between the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and the French Nuclear Safety Authority, envisages exchange of technical information and cooperation in regulation of nuclear safety and radiation protection. The second talks of technical cooperation between the AERB and the French Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety.

What, however, is the French record in this particular field? Some facts suggest an answer.

In January 2004, about 15,000 anti-nuclear protesters marched in Paris against a then new generation of nuclear reactors, the European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPWR), which is what awaits installation in Jaitapur. In the same year, an anti-nuclear protester, Sebastien Briat, was run over by a train carrying radioactive waste. On March 17 2007, simultaneous protests, organized by Sortir du nucléaire (Get Out of Nuclear Power), were staged in five French towns to protest construction of EPWR plants; Rennes, Lyon, Toulouse, Lille and Strasbourg.

In July 2008, there were a series of accidents at the French nuclear site Tricastin-Pierrelatte, and Greenpeace France launched two court cases, pressing for disclosures of the details to the public. In August 2008, Sortir du nucléaire described Areva’s radioactive emissions as “very dangerous” and demanded an official safety inspection of its factories. The French nuclear establishment cannot claim to set public fears on this and similar other counts at rest.

The India-France nuclear agreements also raise fears of a regional fallout. The pacts have elicited a predictable reaction from Pakistan. Speaking for Islamabad, Foreign Office spokesperson Abdul Basit warned against creation of “exceptions for any country in civil nuclear cooperation” as not only “a step backward in terms of promoting nuclear cooperation for peaceful purpose” but also one fraught with “serious implications for regional and global security.”

The diplomatic language may conceal the prospect of a dangerous escalation of South Asia’s nuclear arms race.