India's proposal for a new fully safeguarded facility for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel helped resolve what for the US was the "principal major issue" holding up agreement on implementing their history-making civil nuclear deal.
"I think it was the fundamental turning point in these negotiations, and our experts took some time to look through the Indian proposal, and I think it did make a great, positive difference that allowed us to go ahead," says the key US negotiator R. Nicholas Burns.
Details of the agreement are still under wraps, but answers given by Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, at a briefing here Friday give some inkling of how what the two sides call a "historic milestone" was reached in a way that met India's concerns and yet conformed to the US law approving the deal in principle.
Introducing an element of equality, "both of us - the United States and India - have granted each other consent to reprocess spent fuel." This does not go against the terms of the Hyde Act, Burns asserted, noting that the US has committed to confer similar reprocessing consent in two past 123 agreements with Japan and with Euratom, the agency that supplies nuclear fuels to the European Atomic Energy Community.
US decided to go for it for two reasons, he said. First, the proposed new state-of-the-art reprocessing facility would be under IAEA safeguards and any reprocessing of spent fuel would be fully transparent to the IAEA, the US and to the international community.
Second, it would be consistent with Section 131 of the US Atomic Energy Act calling for subsequent arrangements in reprocessing, arrangements in procedures, that would need to be agreed upon before the reprocessing could actually take place.
"We believe it's a deal that makes sense to the United States. It allows India to go forward in a way fully within the Hyde Act, to complete the kind of activities that it wants to undertake, but it allows us to do so in a way where we're fully protected, not only by our law, but also by the IAEA provisions for this facility."
Congress has the right to review the particular subsequent arrangements and procedures, Burns said, but going by his briefings at the Capitol Hill, he did not anticipate any hurdle on this count.
The facility does not have to be only dedicated to US-origin material. It could be used for everybody else's fuel as well if they give permission to do so.
Fuel supply assurances:
The fuel supply assurances that President George Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to in March 2006 had been reaffirmed by supporting the creation of an Indian strategic fuel reserve and for committing to help India gain access to the international fuel market.
Four specific assurances given by Bush are now built into the 123 Agreement. "And they are very much consistent with the fact that we have a positive view of our future civil nuclear cooperation with India," Burns said.
"But in the event of any kind of hypothetical disruption of supply, and there is lots of different hypothetical examples (other than a nuclear test) that might lead to an interruption of supply, we know it's important for the Indians to have a continuous supply of fuel."
Under the US Atomic Energy Act, the American president has the right to ask for the return of nuclear fuel and nuclear technologies if there is a test, Burns said. "The fact is that American law insists that the right of return be preserved, and we have preserved that in this 123 Agreement with India."
"The fact is also that we hope and trust that it won't be necessary for India to test in the future, and we hope and trust that we can go ahead with full civil nuclear cooperation," he said.
But none of that contradicts or conflicts with the legal right of any American president in the future to insist on the right of return. "That's preserved. But that's preserved for the worst case hypothetical event in the future," Burns said hoping " that these hypothetical scenarios will not come into play over the next several years"
Burns disagreed with a reporter that there's a burgeoning military relationship between India and Iran. "India - like most of its neighbours, like all of our European allies, like all of our Asian allies, and like the Gulf states - has a diplomatic relationship with Iran, has a commercial and trade relationship with Iran," he said.
At the same time, "We don't want to see a strong relationship between any country and Iran because we think the signal to Iran should be one of isolation. So our message to India is very much consistent with our message to all of our other friends and allies around the world."
Asked how US could prevent other countries, such as China and Pakistan, from making similar deals, Burns said, "Well, there's a very high bar in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It's consensus. I don't think there's any other country out there who's not in the NSG who could be brought into the NSG at this point and given the type of treatment that we hope India will be given."
Nor did he expect an acceleration of the nuclear arms programme in South Asia, "and we hope that's not going to be the case." For decades, the United States had tried to carefully balance every step with India and determine its impact on Pakistan and vice versa. But back in the spring of 2005, it felt it was important to, in effect, to "dehyphenate our relationship with India-Pakistan."
An India-specific deal:
The United States is not going to suggest a similar deal with any other country in the world, Burns said as "We've always felt of India as an exception."
"We've made the argument that India has not proliferated its nuclear technology; that India, in effect, outside the system, has played by the rules and that the system would be strengthened by bringing it in. But we' re not anticipating, in any way, shape or form, a similar deal for any other country."