Published online 23 July 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.973

News: Briefing

US-India nuclear deal moves forward

Landmark agreement faces opposition from scientists and arms-control experts.

A deal for nuclear cooperation between the United States and India is back on track after a crucial vote yesterday in India's parliament. Nature News takes a look at the controversial agreement and what it might mean for the globe's fragile non-proliferation regime.

So what's the deal?

The bilateral agreement would pave the way for sweeping cooperation between the United States and India. It would allow the United States to supply equipment and nuclear fuel to India, and boost scientific collaborations between the two countries in several areas, including fusion research.

protestIndia's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters protest India's nuclear deal with the United States.AP Photo/Ajit Solanki

What happened yesterday?

In a 275–256 vote, the Indian parliament gave Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the go-ahead to proceed with the deal. The vote comes after months of delay from Singh's opponents, who opposed the deal on the grounds that it weakened India's sovereignty.

How do India's scientists feel about the deal?

Physicists largely opposed the deal because it would partition India's nuclear programme into a civilian and military component. Under the terms of the deal 14 of India's 22 power reactors would be opened to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The remaining reactors would remain under military control. Many scientists feel that this division will weaken India's ability to conduct nuclear research for its weapons programme.

How do arms-control experts feel about it?

Many oppose the deal because, they say, it weakens the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the international agreement that aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan have never signed up to the treaty, and "this would be a symbolic pardon for India's rejection of the NPT", says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington DC.

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And what about the nuclear industry?

The deal is likely to be a boon to big US nuclear suppliers such as General Electric and Westinghouse, opening up another market to which they could supply nuclear equipment and expertise. The same may be true for other major suppliers such as France and Russia.

Who else needs to approve the deal?

The US Congress must still give final approval to the deal, as must the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the global consortium of countries who trade in nuclear technology. The IAEA must also approve a set of safeguards to ensure the security of India's nuclear material and facilities.

Is the plan likely to go ahead?

Congress will probably pass the deal, although maybe not this year, says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington DC. And whether or not arms-control experts like it, both the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group will probably sign off on the deal in one form or another, says Kimball. The question is whether they will place appropriate restrictions on trade with India, especially if it returns to testing nuclear weapons. "The trick is making sure that India lives up to the responsibilities of other nuclear powers," he says. 

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