Madhya Pradesh Chronicle (India)

Monday, September 15 1997

India Votes For New Nuclear Waste Treaty

R Senthilnathan

India has accepted a new international convention which requires countries with nuclear facilities to comply with high standards of radioactive waste management.

Pakistan, South Asia's second major nuclear power nation, voted against the convention, titled Joint Convention on Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. New Zealand joined Pakistan in opposing the convention. Russia and China abstained from the weekend vote. When the treaty was put to vote in Vienna after a five-day high- level diplomatic conference India, along with 61 other nations, voted for it.

At the conference hosted by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), China had lobbied hard to curtail Taiwan's rights to export its radioactive waste to North Korea.

The convention will open for signature by countries at the annual general conference of the IAEA later this month. The treaty will come into force after it is ratified by 25 states, at least 15 of them with nuclear facilities.

Indian officials said they were happy with the outcome even though their proposals could not be accepted.

The convention says that in principle, the nuclear waste generated in a country should be disposed of in the same country. India is already doing this with its nuclear power plants mostly disposing of their waste near their location.

The convention obliges signatories to maintain high standards in storing and eventual disposal of wastes from nuclear activities such as power generation or medical use. Taking the cue from the 1994 Nuclear Safety Convention, the IAEA will hold periodic meetings where signatories will submit reports on waste management.

The convention completes the aim of bringing all aspects of civilian nuclear activities under international norms. The first step was the 1994 Nuclear Safety Convention, which took effect last October and obliges signatory countries to maintain high levels of safety in planning, designing, construction, operation and emergency preparedness of civilian nuclear facilities.

Both conventions exclude military nuclear establishments.

The vote was preceded by some hard bargaining. Almost all efforts to change the wording of the draft convention, or introduce new issues, were thwarted as they did not receive the necessary two- thirds majority.

The title of the convention itself underlines the conflict. First day of the meeting, Mr Yogesh Tiwari, head of the Indian delegation, complained that the experts group had drifted from its original brief of dealing only with waste. India had opposed the attempt to include spent nuclear fuel in the category of wastes because it considers this as a resource which can be reprocessed for reuse as fuel.

India was backed by countries like Britain, France and Japan which also reprocess part of their spent fuel. The United States, on the other hand, insisted that spent fuel should be considered waste.

As a compromise, it was agreed to include both issues in the convention but under separate chapters, and each country has the right to decide how to define the spent fuel - as a waste or as a resource.

``We would have liked the issue of spent fuel management negotiated as a separate convention, but the opinion was that it will take many more years for such a convention to come into force while here was an opportunity to do something about it,'' said an Indian official.

China had lobbied hard without success, to include a paragraph declaring that a country may conduct transboundary shipping of nuclear waste to and from a non-state entity without prejudice to the sovereignty and safety of the state of that entity.

What China wanted was a clear role in Taiwan's (the so-called non-State entity) efforts to ship nuclear wastes to North Korea or to any other country for that matter.

Beijing claimed that even though it had never interfered with any of Taiwan's transboundary shipping, it is a very special problem for China, affecting the safety and sovereignty of the mainland. However, the US objected arguing that China's motives were purely political, and the proposal did not have any economical or environmental aspect.

Unlike most Western nations, Cuba and most of the Asian countries, including India and Pakistan, backed the Chinese proposal. Japan voted against while Indonesia abstained.

However, the Western delegates declared that their negative vote did not mean that they were questioning the policy that Taiwan is part of China.

Also voted out was a similar proposal by New Zealand and Turkey to include an assurance that transit countries not only be informed of transboundary movement of radioactive waste, but also requested for permission for this. Although there is still not much nuclear traffic through either the Bosphorus (in Turkey) nor the South Pacific, both these nations fear this could happen in the future and want to ensure there are enough safeguards against accidents, a diplomat said.

Southeast Asian countries too are worried that the Straits of Malacca might be used for nuclear transport in the future.(IANS).