NEW DELHI Toshiba Corp's Westinghouse Electric hopes to clinch a deal to build six nuclear reactors in India by end-March, its CEO said, in time for a possible visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington to attend a global nuclear summit.
A Westinghouse team is already in India to negotiate the deal, Chief Executive Daniel Roderick told Reuters, but talks are likely to go down to the wire, as the crucial issue of nuclear liability insurance for suppliers remains unresolved.
The aim, however, was to make a "commercially significant announcement" during Modi's expected U.S. visit in March and sign a final contract later in the year, Roderick said, narrowing the timeline on a deal that an Indian official had said would be disclosed by June.
The contract would give a big boost to India's $150 billion nuclear power programme, and a broader push to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
"We need to see the details of the insurance company and how the insurance will work at a level beyond what we have seen so far," Roderick said in an interview. "And that needs to happen in the next 30 to 45 days."
India has launched an insurance pool with a liability cap of 15 billion rupees ($222 million) to assuage suppliers' concerns, after a 2010 law gave the state-run operator Nuclear Power Corp of India Ltd (NPCIL) the right to seek damages from them in the event of an accident. Roderick said that while the concept gave Westinghouse confidence to go ahead with a potential deal, the company still needed details of how the liability scheme would work before it can agree on commercial terms.
The NPCIL did not respond to requests for comment on the deal, which was put on the fast-track when President Barack Obama visited India in January last year.
DECADE IN THE MAKING
The Westinghouse deal would be the first nuclear commercial power project since the United States and India first struck an agreement to cooperate in the civil nuclear arena a decade ago, and would underscore a growing strategic partnership between the world's two largest democracies.
An Indian foreign ministry spokesman declined to comment on Modi's travel plans.
A U.S. diplomat, however, said the United States had invited Modi to the March 31-April 1 Nuclear Security Summit and that Washington was thinking of turning the trip into a full-fledged official visit, which would give the Indian leader a similar reception as Chinese President Xi Jinping.
India has given two sites to U.S. companies - Westinghouse and a nuclear venture between General Electric Co and Hitachi - to build six reactors each.
In December, an Indian official told Reuters that GE had yet to decide on whether it would move ahead with the plan. Spokesman Christopher White said GE was still interested, but added that the March timeframe was "totally dependent on the finalization of the insurance plan".
Roderick said that if the GE-Hitachi deal did not eventually go through, Westinghouse would rather the Indian government gave it the site than "Russia or somebody else".
He said that while Modi's office was driving the deal, other government authorities also had to hasten the process. "It is just going to take everyone deciding to have this done by March," Roderick added.
($1 = 67.4300 Indian rupees)
(Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani in New Delhi, Devidutta Tripathy in Mumbai and Al Scott in New York; Editing by Miral Fahmy)
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