President Obama announced a tentative agreement in New Delhi Sunday with India’s prime minister to open the country to U.S. firms investing in commercial nuclear power, a step that the two leaders said underscores improved bilateral relations.
The president and Prime Minister Narendra Modi said they reached an “understanding” on liability of U.S. companies in the event of a nuclear accident, and on U.S. insistence of tracking nuclear materials — issues that had prevented American companies from building reactors in India since an initial breakthrough agreement in 2006.
“We are committed to moving towards full implementation,” Mr. Obama said with Mr. Modi in New Delhi. “This is an important step that shows how we can work together to elevate our relationship.”
White House advisers characterized the agreement as a “breakthrough” and said Mr. Modi brought a new tone of cooperation to the talks. The impasse had its origins in the Bhopal gas leak disaster in 1984, and the 2006 nuclear accord never opened up the commercial opportunities that the George W. Bush administration envisioned..
“In our judgment, the Indians have moved sufficiently on these issues to give us assurances are resolved,” said White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.
U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma told reporters that insurance pools will be part of the solution to industry’s concerns about the liability issue. He said the understanding is between the two governments but added that, ultimately, “it’s up to the companies what to do.”
Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi also said they had agreed to greater cooperation on clean energy and climate change, although they didn’t announce even the type of non-binding agreement that Mr. Obama reached with China last fall that set specific targets for cutting greenhouse gases.
The president is trying to build support among the world’s largest polluting nations to reduce carbon emissions prior to a global climate change summit later this year in France.
“I think India’s voice is very important on this issue,” Mr. Obama said. “Perhaps no country could potentially be more affected by the impacts of climate change, and no country is going to be more important in moving forward a strong agreement than India.”
The leaders also discussed greater cooperation on defense and counterterrorism. Mr. Modi said his private talks with Mr. Obama on a range of subjects were “very detailed,” but he said of the particulars: “Let’s keep them behind curtains.”
The two leaders gave each other a bear hug upon Mr. Obama’s arrival in New Delhi, with Mr. Modi breaking protocol to greet the president at the airport. Until last year, Mr. Modi, a onetime Hindu activist, had been denied a visa to the U.S. over his alleged role in permitting the massacre of 2,000 Muslims when he was the governor of Gujarat in 2002.
Mr. Obama lifted the ban last year after Mr. Modi took office, and the prime minister visited the White House in September.
On Monday Mr. Obama will be the first U.S. president to attend India’s Republic Day parade, an annual show of military might long associated with the anti-Americanism of the Cold War, and he will host a radio show with Mr. Modi.
Elected last May, Mr. Modi has injected a new vitality into the economy and foreign relations and, to Washington’s delight, begun pushing back against China’s growing assertiveness across Asia.
In a veiled reference to China, the leaders reiterated the “importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.”
The White House announced that Mr. Obama will depart slightly early from India to travel to Saudi Arabia to pay his respects following the death of King Abdullah, skipping a planned visit to the Taj Mahal.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.