Senate Approves Nuclear Deal with India

The U.S. can now ship civilian nuclear fuel and technology to India. The plan passed through the Senate easily Thursday night. It was a victory for President Bush. But critics say the deal sets a dangerous precedent, by rewarding a nuclear power that has refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

A bid by the Bush administration to seal an alliance with India by providing nuclear materials and technology has been approved by the Senate. Critics say the deal sets a dangerous precedent by rewarding a nuclear power that's refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Still, many Senate Democrats joined Republicans in backing the agreement, as NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: In last night's debate, some senators saw the India nuclear accord as another major foreign policy blunder, but there were others who said the U.S. has to make the best of an undeniable fact.

RICHARD LUGAR: India has nuclear weapons, has stated its intent to keep them.

WELNA: That's Richard Lugar, the outgoing Republican chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. Lugar readily conceded the so-called United States/India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act does not require India to stop producing the fissile materials used in nuclear bombs. Instead, India is simply urged to do so.

LUGAR: We make it the policy of the United States, quote, "to achieve as quickly as possible a cessation of the production by India and Pakistan of fissile materials for nuclear weapons and other nuclear explosive devices," end of quote.

WELNA: And Virginia Republican George Allen called the deal with India good business.

GEORGE ALLEN: U.S. companies will benefit from increased jobs and economic opportunities in the India energy market. Cooperation from this will also ensue, I believe, in clean coal technology and also bio fuels.

WELNA: In order for the U.S. to supply India with nuclear materials and technology, a series of conditions in the 1954 Atomic Energy Act will have to be waived. But Joseph Biden, the Democrat who'll soon chair the Foreign Relations Committee, dismissed concerns that doing so might undermine efforts to get Iran, North Korea and other nations to comply with nuclear safeguards.

JOSEPH BIDEN: This is a single case. India, unlike Pakistan and other countries, has acted responsibly; it has not proliferated weapons. It does not - doesn't have an A.Q. Khan. It is not comparable to Iran or Pakistan, will have no impact on the relationship of those two countries.

WELNA: Other Democrats sharply disagreed, including North Dakota's Byron Dorgan.

BYRON DORGAN: I fail to see how undermining decades of effort at non-proliferation and our providing a green light to India to produce new nuclear weapons, additional nuclear weapons, makes this a safer world. Quite the contrary, I think it is dangerous. I think this agreement is a horrible mistake.

WELNA: New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman noted that India first exploded a nuclear bomb in 1974, built with technology provided for peaceful purposes by the U.S. He said in this deal, India allows international inspections of only some civilian installations.

JEFF BINGAMAN: Many of the facilities that raise the greatest proliferation concerns, including the fast breeder reactor program and its uranium enrichment plants and its spent fuel reprocessing facilities, are placed beyond the reach of any international safeguards.

India will be free to use these facilities to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons without any international inspection or control.

WELNA: All attempts to amend the bill failed, and Democrats like incoming intelligence committee chair Jay Rockefeller guaranteed its passage.

JAY ROCKEFELLER: I want that relationship with India. It's totally crucial to us in terms of its intrinsic value. Also as a counterbalance to China. And secondly, I don't think the Indians are going to mess up on this.

WELNA: The Senate bill must now be reconciled with the version the House passed in July.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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