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Critics’ alarm at nuclear deal

By Carol Giacomo, Washington
A LANDMARK new US-India nuclear agreement would enable New Delhi to expand atomic weapons production and encourage Pakistan and China to do likewise, critics say.

Nuclear non-proliferation experts, including Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, yesterday expressed concerns about a "separation" plan that would open India’s civil nuclear facilities to UN inspections while permitting military facilities to remain off-limits.

The plan is central to whether the US-India nuclear deal, agreed last July, goes forward. US business leaders say the deal could lead to billions of dollars in non-nuclear and civilian nuclear-related contracts while government officials say the agreement commits India to play a larger role in halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

But the two governments are at odds over details, and it is unclear if they can reach agreement before US President George W Bush visits New Delhi in early March.

But even if the Bush administration deemed the plan credible and civilian facilities were under permanent international monitoring, the sale of US and other foreign fuel to India "would still free-up India’s existing capacity to produce plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons and allow for the rapid expansion of India’s nuclear arsenal," the experts said in a memo to the US Congress.

For 30 years, the US led the effort to deny India nuclear technology because it tested and developed nuclear weapons in contravention of international norms. Both India and its nuclear-armed rival Pakistan have refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But Mr Bush now views India, a rising democratic and economic power, as an evolving US ally.

The plan aims to ensure US nuclear technology is never used for military purposes and in theory would make civilian facilities less susceptible to proliferation.

But if India buys US and other foreign nuclear fuel and continues to expand its nuclear arsenal, this would force Pakistan to increase its arsenal and encourage China to continue modernising, Mr Kimball said.

India has an estimated 50 nuclear weapons now and a goal of 300-400 weapons in a decade.