Uranium sale refuels nuclear debate

The US Senate's approval by a razor-thin margin of the sale of enriched uranium to India has pleased the Carter administration and India. But it also has called into question Washington's nuclear non-proliferation policy, according to opponents of the sale. And specialists are concerned that the sale may strain US relations with other nations in southern Asia.

Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio, one of the Senate's leading experts on nuclear energy, maintained prior to the vote that the uranium export "would deal a grievous blow to US non- proliferation efforts around the world." After the vote , he added that it now would be "practically impossible" for the US ever to try to convince other nations to accept nuclear safeguards.

For its part, the Indian government Sept. 25 welcomed the vote, which frees the shipment of 38 metric tons of enriched uranium for its Tarapur power plant. New Delhi expressed appreciation to President Carter and Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie for their lobbying efforts on behalf of the sale.

At the same time, it threw cold water on the Carter administration's expressed hope that the resumed fuel shipments would help persuade India to accept international safeguards for all its nuclear facilities.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government, a spokesman made clear, has not changed its policy on acceptance of full-scope, or comprehensive, safeguards for all nuclear installations. The third world's only member of the nuclear "club" rejects them as discriminatory because major nuclear states -- including the United States -- do not open up all civilian and military nuclear facilities to international inspection.

While the Senate action eliminates an immediate sore point in Indo-American relations, already strained by trade disputes and what many congressmen perceive as a pro-Soviet tilt in Indian foreign policy, the nuclear fuel supply controversy seems likely to continue.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman announced Thursday that India has submitted a fresh application to Washington this month for another shipment of 19.8 tons of enriched uranium for the Tarapur plant near Bombay.

The Senate action also is likely to aggravate American relations with Pakistan. India's neighbor and traditional antagonist was cut off from American economic and military aid in 1979 after Western intelligence agencies pieced together what they believe is firm evidence of clandestine work toward a nuclear bomb, the so-called "Islamic bomb."

US concern over this development was underscored earlier this week in reports that the Carter administration was interrupting nuclear cooperation with Switzerland after the US learned that the Swiss were exporting technology to Pakisstan that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.

Much of the world's concern about nuclear proliferation is centered on the Indian and Pakistan maintain that their nuclear programs are intended solely for peaceful purposes. Neither, however, has signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and both say they are keeping their options open on the detonation of nuclear devices.

India first flexed its nuclear muscle in 1974 by detonating a nuclear device, for which it diverted US-supplied heavy water and a Canadian-supplied research reactor. Western experts believe that India has strategic weapons capability, although it has not gone on to develop it.

The congressional battle over the uranium sales provided a textbook example of two apparently desirable foreign policy objectives colliding head-on: the need to maintain and strengthen US influence in a volatile region of the world vs. the need to tighten the reins on nuclear proliferation.

And the bipartisan nature of the issue was evident in the political alliances it engendered -- liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachussets and conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina both voting against the sale. The measure to block the uranium shipment was supported by 24 Democrats and 22 republicans, with 31 Democrats and 17 Republicans backing Carter's bid for the sale.

The sale's advocates in the Senate were headed by Sen. Frank Church (D) of Idaho, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Church insisted the resolution "would weaken his [Carter's] hand in dealing witht he entire situation in southwest Asia." Carter has maintained that export of the US uranium to India would strengthen ties with what he called a "key South Asian democracy."

Supporters of the administration's position pointed to India's growing links with the Soviet Union -- evidenced in its $1.6 billion arms deal with the Soviet Union last May, its recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and its recognition of the Vietnamese-backed regime in Cambodia -- as reason to try to strengthen Washington's voice in New Delhi.

They also argued that the sale would further Washington's efforts to halt the profiration of nuclear weapons. Prior to the Senate vote, Indian officials had expressed optimism that the country could manufacture its own alternative fuel for Tarapur, or purchase it from other nuclear suppliers. Some in India viewed the prospect of an American cutoff as a blessing in diguise because it would spur Indian efforts toward self-sufficiency in nuclear fuel. Such self-sufficiency might include reprocessing of spent fuel, a technique that the Carter administration opposes as conducive to the spread of nuclear weapons.

Opponents, led by Senator Glenn, argued that the sale would signal o the rest of the world that the United States was not serious about its expressed desire to control the spread of nuclear weapons and the material needed for their manufacture.

Glenn also charged India with falling to comply with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Act signed by Congress in 1978 (a measure largely the result of India's surprise nuclear test), which requires a country receiving nuclear fuel from the US to open all its nuclear facilities to international inspection.

At Glenn's urging, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sept. 10 voted 8 to 7 to recommend that the Senate block the sale, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee followed its lead. On Sept. 18, the House of Representatives rejected the sale by an overwhelming 298 to 98 vote.

But under intensive lobbying by members of the Carter administration, including President Carter and Secretary of State Muskie, the Senate voted 48 to 46 to refuse to block the uranium transaction.

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