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Friday, October 3, 2008

U.S. nuclear experts wary of India deal

In January 2006, an Indian government agency purchased newspaper ads seeking help in building an obscure piece of metal machinery. The details of the project, available to bidders, were laid out in a series of drawings that jolted nuclear-weapons experts who discovered them that spring.

The blueprints depicted the inner workings of a centrifuge, a machine used to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs. In most Western countries, such drawings would be considered secret, but the Indian diagrams were available for a nominal bidding fee, said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector. He said he acquired the drawings to prove a point.

"We got them for about $10," said Albright, who called the incident a "serious leak of sensitive nuclear information."

India has since tightened its bidding procedures, but the incident has fueled concerns among opponents of a U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear deal Congress approved Wednesday.

The accord, first announced in 2005 by the Bush administration, would lift a decades-old moratorium on nuclear trade with India, allowing U.S. companies to share sensitive technology despite that country's refusal to ban nuclear testing or sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to India today to meet with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to commemorate approval of the accord, which also requires safeguards and U.N. inspections at India's civilian, but not military, nuclear plants.

Backers of the deal say it will cement U.S. ties with India and reward a country that has been a responsible steward of nuclear technology since it first joined the nuclear weapons club in 1974.

Critics, including former U.S. diplomats, military officers and arms-control officials, accuse the White House of rushing the agreement and say lawmakers, eager to leave Washington, sped up of a complicated deal that could spark a nuclear-arms race in Asia.

"This deal significantly weakens U.S. and international security," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, chairman of the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. But Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said there were "compelling geopolitical reasons" to OK the bill, mentioning India's location near China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

White House officials see India as a key to battling Islamic extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. India has growing economic and diplomatic clout in Afghanistan.

Bush administration officials have repeatedly lauded India's efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear technology, contrasting its behavior with that of Pakistan, the home base of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the acknowledged nuclear smuggler who delivered weapons secrets to Libya, Iran and North Korea.

Opponents point to what they call decades of deceptive practices India has used to acquire nuclear materials from foreign governments. A report by Albright and his Institute for Science and International Security, or ISIS, a Washington-based nonprofit that monitors the spread of weapons technology, cites recent incidents in which it says India engaged in "illicit nuclear trade."


In an instance alleged by ISIS, India used an array of trading companies to secretly acquire tons of tributyl phosphate, a chemical used to separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. China, a longtime supplier of TSP to India, halted shipments of the chemical in 2003 after U.S. criticism. India turned to independent trading firms that acquired TSP from German and Russian companies without revealing the true destination, the report said.

In 2004, the State Department slapped sanctions on two Indian nuclear scientists alleged to have passed heavy-water technology to Iran. At least four Indian companies have been sanctioned over sales of missile technology to Iran.

The deal nearly toppled Singh's government last month, when foes contended it would make India subservient to the United States after disclosure of a letter from the U.S. State Department to the chairman of the House foreign-affairs panel, Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., promising the United States wouldn't sell sensitive technologies to India and would halt nuclear trade if New Delhi launched a nuclear test.

"The deal has been done at the cost of the country's sovereignty and nuclear independence," Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy said.

(Source: Seattle Times)

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