As the Indian administration gears up to launch a civil nuclear cooperation blitz with the U.S. and reiterate its petition to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington in September, industry experts said that decisions in these complex matters “will not materialise overnight,” and New Delhi may have “painted itself into a corner,” on nuclear liability.
Speaking to The Hindu Omer Brown, Legal counsel for Contractors International Group on Nuclear Liability, said that in theory more progress could be made during the high-level visit, yet it is difficult for U.S. corporations to create an insurance pool against the risk of a nuclear accident in India given that foreign inspectors were not permitted to examine the facilities for insurance purposes and could only “train” Indian inspectors to go in and undertake this critical task.
With continuing debate around Section 17(b) and Article 46 of India’s nuclear liability law raising thorny questions about channelling liability, Mr. Brown said, “The only way forward is for [India’s nuclear liability] law to be amended.”
Speculation about the liability law resumed this month after Nisha Biswal, the U.S. State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, said in a Congressional testimony regarding the impasse on U.S. nuclear suppliers’ insurance options, “We believe that there may be an opening to address nuclear liability issues either through a legal framework or through other frameworks that can help create more surety… so that it is not unlimited liability as the companies are rightly concerned.”
Meanwhile South Block’s calls for India’s admittance to the elite nuclear exporter’s club appeared to be falling on deaf ears, as no decisions were taken about this at the NSG’s meeting in Argentina last month and, “The matter is not consensual in the group and it can be assumed there will be continued consultations about how to proceed,” Mark Hibss, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Programme said to The Hindu.
Mr. Hibbs added that there were a number of issues standing in the way, including the strategic implications of India having “sensitive nuclear capabilities, nuclear weapons, and [being] outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but not in the group, [and also] technical issues about how NSG rules would apply to India since it has nuclear weapons.”
Regardless of such trepidations, “All states in the group face the near certain prospect that, if they oppose Indian membership, India will leverage its bilateral trade relationships to advance its case,” Mr. Hibbs noted, adding that this had happened in 2008 and recur.
Commenting on recent evidence surfacing about India’s apparent rapid progress in covertly developing nuclear enrichment or weapons facilities in sites such as Khudapura in Karnataka, Mr. Hibbs said, “Some states may be uncomfortable with the continual build-up of India’s nuclear weapons infrastructure especially since it is involved in a regional competition with another nuclear-armed state outside both the NPT and the NSG.”
However, he said, the technical discussions between NSG participants and India about the comprehensiveness and robustness of the latter’s export control system were more significant.