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India: USS Nimitz Visit Raises Fears
Gov't tells the public that no nuclear warhead will be on board
M.G. Srinath (srinath)     Print Article 
Published 2007-06-28 13:33 (KST)   
Indians still bristle with anger at the crude gunboat diplomacy conducted by former U.S. President Richard Nixon when he sent then frontline aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal in 1971 when India's victory in a war with Pakistan seemed certain.

India refused to be intimidated. Although the event passed without incident, it left a deep wound on the Indian psyche that took many years of Washington diplomacy to heal.

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Since then, many military ships and submarines, including nuclear-powered ones, from Britain, France, the U.S. and other countries have visited India as part of routine activity to promote goodwill and share experience.

But the proposed "friendship visit" next week of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to the southern Indian port of Chennai has reopened old wounds. It has also rekindled a debate on nuclear safety with allies of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over the granting of permission for the American military ship to berth.

Nimitz can carry 90 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, including the F-18 Super Hornet that Washington wants to sell to India, and has a crew of almost 6,000.

The Indian defense ministry has clarified that Nimitz will not be carrying nuclear weapons. Nor is it actually going to berth at Chennai. The ship is expected to be in the southern port July 1-5.

"USS Nimitz is a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and is not known to be carrying weapons with nuclear warheads. It is not going to enter the on-shore/alongside berths in Chennai port but will be anchored in water some distance away from the land," the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry also said that nuclear-powered ships and submarines from France, Britain and the U.S. have previously visited India: "None of them was known to be carrying weapons with nuclear weapons."

But Sitaram Yechury, leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), lashed out at the government by saying that India's principled stand has been that no facilities should be extended to nuclear-powered ships.

"We would like to know what compulsions the government had in taking such a decision. The government should explain it," Yechury said.

The reaction of leftists in India came after Defense Minister A. K. Antony said the visit of Nimitz was part of efforts to expand defense cooperation with important nations and that there was nothing new about it.

Antony said foreign naval ships regularly visit Indian ports and sometimes berth at Chennai, Goa and other ports. In March, the Indian navy staged a joint drill with the American and Japanese navies off the Japanese coast. The Indian and U.S. navies have also been conducting an annual series of joint exercises.

The USS Nimitz, named after Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who commanded the Pacific Fleet during World War II, is currently on a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. has dismissed any talk of radiation hazards. Stressing the safety record of American nuclear-powered warships, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi said there had never been a nuclear accident in the 56-year history of the program.

"U.S. Navy nuclear-powered warships have steamed more than 135 million miles and amassed over 5,700 reactor years of safe operating experience," said a statement.

Only a handful of countries operate nuclear-powered ships. The Indian navy gained three years of experience working on a nuclear submarine leased from Russia in 1988.

India has been working on a closely guarded nuclear-powered vessel but the project is said to be in its early stages, according to reports in the Indian media.

Jayaram Jayalalitha, former chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, of which Chennai is the capital, raised the radiation scare.

"[This] will be hazardous to the people in the proximate cities wherever it is docked," she said in a statement. "This is a serious issue and the possible radiation hazards to the people of Chennai cannot be taken lightly Because of the radiation hazards, many countries like Australia have denied permission [to the aircraft carrier to enter their ports]."

Jayalalitha's "concern" came after workers at the Chennai port expressed concern about the issue, which was dismissed as unwarranted by port authorities.

The Nimitz issue comes even as the two countries are holding protracted negotiations on the civil nuclear deal signed by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Singh in 2005 during the Indian leader's visit to Washington.

Talks on the issue have been sputtering although negotiators have met four times since last year to work through the issues.

India's latest tough stand on the issue came when S. Jaishankar, New Delhi's negotiator on the issue, along with Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, told a blue-ribboned audience in Washington this week that India will not compromise on the twin issues of enrichment and reprocessing of spent U.S. fuel and that India was seeking country-specific exemptions.

"The bottom line is that the resumption of international cooperation in civilian nuclear energy cannot be at the cost of India's strategic program. Any exceptions to the contrary will have to be firmly dispelled," Jaishankar told participants at a conference organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"We do not envisage any commitment beyond the July 18 statement," he said, referring to the joint statement made by Bush and Singh in Washington in 2005.

Jaishankar, who is currently India's envoy to Singapore and holds a doctoral degree in nuclear diplomacy, has been quoted as saying: "As soon as the other side agrees with me, the gap will be closed."

Bush and Singh signed the civilian cooperation agreement with the aim of overturning three decades of American sanctions on nuclear trade to India to help the country meet its rising energy needs even though New Delhi has tested nuclear weapons but not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The pact is seen in both nations as a new milestone in the rapidly growing U.S.-India relationship and also as a pillar of 21st century international security.

Washington sees India as a rising Asian superpower and the deal was meant to build a strategic relationship between the two countries and end India's global nuclear isolation, allowing other nations to sell their nuclear fuel and equipment to New Delhi.

It was approved by the U.S. Congress last December but the two nations have failed so far to conclude a bilateral pact due to India's refusal to accept new terms in the deal that were included at the insistence of U.S. lawmakers.

The deal has been at the center of criticism from the start with critics in both countries lamenting that their governments were giving away too much to the other side.

According to Indian Foreign Secretary Menon, the two sides have managed "to come to an understanding of most of the issues."

The sticking points are the issues of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel and the cessation of cooperation in the event that India conducts another nuclear test. India conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998.

India and the U.S. also signed a nuclear fuel separation plan agreement in March 2006 which guarantees adequate fuel -- including reserves -- for India's reactors.

Billed as the "Tarapur effect," New Delhi is extremely cautious on these two issues, having been let down by the Americans before.

In 1963, India obtained its first two power reactors from the U.S. with a promise of lifetime support. But in the 1970s, Washington changed its policy unilaterally and stopped supplying fuel.

Huge pools of spent fuel produced by the reactors began to accumulate at Tarapur as Washington refused to agree to take it back or grant India permission to process it.

"That is why we are insisting on a clear, rights-based approach," an Indian official said. The Americans are insisting on taking the issue "down the line," or leaving it to be dealt with later as and when India is ready to reprocess the spent fuel.

Under the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, any country that buys or uses American fuel or equipment requires Washington's consent before reprocessing it.

Washington says it is willing to offer India a "forward-looking" formula on the same lines as the one it has with China. The 1985 agreement with Beijing provides for altering U.S.-origin material and allows for consultations for a mutually acceptable arrangement through the presumption of approval method.

India, while noting its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, refuses to accept it as legally binding.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter M.G. Srinath

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