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US House of Representatives Approves Bill Advancing Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Deal with India

An agreement under which the United States would sell nuclear technology and fuel to India took a major step forward Wednesday with approval of legislation by the House of Representatives. The bill is one of several legislative steps required before the U.S.-India agreement can be implemented.

Without an exemption from the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, a law approved more than 50 years ago, India would not be eligible to receive U.S. exports of nuclear-related technology or fuel.

The United States has refused to sell such technology to India since it conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, a restriction that remained in force even after neighboring Pakistan became a nuclear power.

In establishing requirements for granting that exemption, the legislation obligates India to fulfill key commitments made in a joint statement [with the U.S.] in 2005 on civilian energy cooperation.

These include separating its civilian and military nuclear facilities, concluding a safeguard agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and signing a still-to-be finalized Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.

Republicans and Democrats supporting the U.S.-India accord cite what they call significant improvements since the Bush administration originally proposed it.

New York Democrat Joseph Crowley says the accord will help solidify India's commitment to nonproliferation. "We need to find a way to bring India into the tent of nonproliferators as she has always been a nonproliferating country. She has never once proliferated beyond her borders, unlike some of her neighbors," he said.

However, some lawmakers say the U.S. failed to obtain strong enough assurances from India regarding its nuclear programs and fissile [bomb-making] material production.

Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich says the agreement undermines the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). "We're going in the wrong direction here. At this time of great crisis in the world, we should be looking toward nuclear disarmament, nuclear abolition, saving the world, not ramping up for Armageddon by nuclear proliferation," he said.

Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen notes that the legislation underscores the need for India to help work against Iran's efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. "Securing India's full and active involvement in dissuading, isolating and if necessary sanctioning and containing Iran for its efforts to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons capability, and the means to deliver these deadly unconventional weapons," he said.

A U.S. president could stop nuclear transfers if India exports equipment or technology in violation of international guidelines, or the international Missile Technology Control Regime. Congress would receive extensive annual reports on compliance, including an assessment of whether India has used any civil nuclear assistance to enhance its weapons program.

House lawmakers also require the agreement to be submitted to a second vote after the Bush administration sends the text of a final agreement to Congress.

Similarly, the Senate must approve not only its own version of the House bill, but also hold a second vote before the cooperation agreement can go ahead.

With both houses of Congress winding down their business before a long summer recess, final approval may have to wait until September.