India, France ink nuclear deal, first after NSG waiver

India on Tuesday emerged out of a 34-year-old nuclear isolation and signed a historic agreement for civil nuclear cooperation with France. With this pact, France became the first country to enter into a formal understanding with India after the Nuclear Suppliers Group exempted India from its guidelines earlier this month.

The agreement, which was finalised in January when French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited India as chief guest for the Republic Day, was signed this afternoon by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Department of Atomic Energy head Anil Kakodkar on the Indian side.

But the agreement can be operationalised only after India signs the already concluded safeguards agreement with IAEA. Though technically India already has six reactors under safeguards for which cooperation can begin, a call on this has still not been taken and partners like France first need to agree. The best case scenario for India would be to have three agreements with US, France and Russia sealed in the next two months and then sign the safeguards agreement.

"Today we have added a new dimension to our strategic partnership... France is the first country with whom we have entered into such an agreement after lifting of international restrictions on civil nuclear cooperation with India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. I conveyed to President Sarkozy our gratitude for France's consistent support to our civil nuclear initiative," said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Currently, the agreement recognises India's right to reprocess spent fuel but does not allow France to sell enrichment and reprocessing technology. When asked whether he was disappointed by this, Kakodkar said: "I would always like more technology. But we must remember that our priority now is to generate electricity and develop the right techno-economic configuration to get the cheapest possible electricity for our consumers."

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd, Kakodkar said, is already in talks with Areva, a leading French nuclear reactor company, for exploring the possibility of manufacturing third generation 1600 MW European Pressurised Reactors in India. Areva has already reached an understanding with China to build two such reactors there and NPCIL would be keen on similar arrangement as that would give impetus to local manufacturers in India.

France was among the first Western countries besides the US to question the non-proliferation argument against India. Back in 2004 when Indian diplomacy was in top gear trying to obtain fuel for Tarapur, it was then French President Jacques Chirac who lent his voice of support to US President George W Bush's plans to do something more "ambitious" with India after the NSSP.

US NSA Stephen Hadley and Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, the then French diplomatic advisor to Chirac, were constantly in touch as India and US agreed to the joint statement in 2005. Significantly, France spoke to the US when the 123 agreement negotiations were stuck over reprocessing rights and conveyed the model adopted in the Indo-French agreement which was then reflected in the 123 where India's right to reprocess spent fuel is recognised. Of course, India had to commit setting up a dedicated facility under safeguards for storing spent fuel made available by using imported uranium.

In the 2006 NSG meeting at Vienna when the Indian question for an exemption was discussed, it was France which first drew the link between climate change and nuclear power in the context of reducing India's rate of carbon emissions. And finally, ahead of the final two rounds of NSG meeting in the past month, Paris issued demarches to European members of the NSG asking them to support India's case for a waiver.

Besides the civil nuclear agreement, India and France also signed a space agreement for cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space and an understanding to launch French satellites using PSLV1.

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