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'US nuke firms want a level playing field'

April 10, 2010 13:16 IST

The delay in the Nuclear Liability Bill, which has faced vehement protests by the Opposition in Parliament, has become a worrying factor for United States business and industry circles.

This concern was expressed very publicly recently when Ron Somers, president of the US-India Business Council, which had lobbied feverishly in the US Congress to get the US-India nuclear deal approved, said the continuing delay in this bill could result in US business firms losing out to Russian, French or Canadian ones.

In an interview with rediff.com's Aziz Haniffa, he explains that the bill would enable India and the US to take their partnership forward.

Is there growing concern and disappointment that things are moving slowly over the nuclear liability bill and US companies are being left behind?

We have always welcomed the opportunity for competition. We do not shy away from competition. In fact, we believe strongly that we produce the best technology and therefore the only request is that we have a level playing field, where there's this wonderful piece of pie and it's not just the India chunk of opportunity -- meaning the $100 billion opportunity of 20 to 30,000 megawatts over the next 30 years. It's about the United States and India cooperating on the global scale to provide civil nuclear power for the world, as partners going forward into the 21st century.

And, accordingly, it's in the interest of Indian companies and Indian corporations as well to make certain that liability is limited in the event of an accident, so that if we are developing projects overseas as partners and there is an accident, at least there is a limitation to that liability.

In what way?

The fact that it will enable the distribution of funding to people who have been hurt in that accident more quickly, more rapidly, with complete transparency. So, the only point that I was making is that here we have the US companies who did much of the heavy lifting back during the 2005 through 2008 period, resulting in the civil nuclear cooperation agreement, the accession of India to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and with of course, with all that heavy lifting, with all that activity, with all that work being done, we certainly just want to remind everyone that we welcome competition. We look forward to being on the playing field, but we'd like to be able to move rapid fast-forward in that competition. And, therefore, let's move together cooperatively and understand that time is being wasted. India needs a tremendous amount of energy and the US makes the best proven technology.

The Left Front and the Bharatiya Janata Party have opposed the bill and called for a massive increase in the liability. They also want the supplier, not just the operator, culpable in case of an accident. These factors are likely to delay the passage of the bill.

Just to repeat, this is not an American request and it should not be viewed as the Americans always wanting something. This is for global scaling and ultimately will benefit the major Indian corporate sector. This is also about acceding to and being part of a Convention of Supplementary Compensation Treaty and therefore it is very important -- and I underscore very important -- that the work being done in the Indian Parliament is complementary and is consistent with the language of the CSC. So, not only is it just a matter of urgency, it's first and foremost important to Indian companies and secondly, it should be consistent and complementary to this treaty.

Are you all confident that this deal will be completed and can be fully consummated perhaps before or during the visit of President Barack Obama to India sometime this summer?

With the successful conclusion of the reprocessing milestone being crossed, we now have to move fast-forward into the two implementation aspects of civil nuclear cooperation, but again, it's so important that we get the language on liability limitation right. As I've said repeatedly, it has to be consistent with the CSC.

Are you confident that once the President sends the agreement to the US Congress with his presidential certifications, it will sail through the Congress again as it did two years ago?

I remind everybody that the civil nuclear cooperation agreement was cleared 359 to 68 in the House and 85-12 in the United States Senate. So, maybe it's going to be this issue -- the importance of our relationship with India -- that once again brings a bi-partisanship back to Washington. So, I see no problem of getting it cleared once it's presented to the US Congress.

Are you confident that the deal will be concluded and ready for implementation -- for US companies to start selling its reactors and technology -- during President Obama's trip to India?

We are aiming to get this concluded in advance of the trip so that it really is part of the deliverables that can be presented to the people of India. Because, after all, it is the sixth ever visit of a United States president to India and therefore it will be a historic occasion and this is simply the consummation of greater commerce and trade between our two countries.