Vienna: Governors of the United Nations nuclear watchdog approved an inspections plan for India by consensus on Friday, a key step towards finalizing a US-India nuclear cooperation deal, diplomats in the closed meeting said.
The accord would open up to India the world market in atomic materials and technology for civilian use, but is controversial since New Delhi has conducted nuclear test explosions and never joined the global Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.
Proliferation concerns:Mohamed El Baradei, director general of IAEA, at the UN agency’s 35-nation board meeting in Vienna, on Frida. (Photograph by Hans Punz / AP)
With the go-ahead from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, governors, Washington must persuade a 45-nation nuclear supply cartel to grant India a waiver allowing trade with a non-NPT state, then get US Congress ratification, to sew up the deal.
The initial Nuclear Suppliers Group, or NSG, meeting on India is expected to be held on 21-22 August, diplomats said.
IAEA director general Mohamed El Baradei told governors the inspections scheme met non-proliferation safeguards standards and talks had begun on short-notice checks, which would boost confidence in India’s intentions.
Washington and close allies say the deal ushers India towards the non-proliferation mainstream and fights global warming by promoting use of low-polluting nuclear energy in surging developing economies, reducing high oil and gas costs as well. Some smaller Western and developing nations and disarmament groups are concerned the accord could undermine loyalty to a 40-year-old NPT already strained by a thrust for nuclear power, led by Iran.
Diplomats had said IAEA board approval of the inspections draft was certain because, despite qualms about vague language, it marks a net gain for non-proliferation by putting the bulk of Indian reactors under UN scrutiny.
The “umbrella safeguards agreement” applies to India’s 14 declared civilian nuclear reactors, among a total of 22.
El Baradei touched on diplomatic concern that parts of the draft blur divisions between civil and military atomic sectors, with a possible loophole allowing India to transfer bomb-grade fuel separated from civilian stocks to its military programme.
“These are not comprehensive or full-scope safeguards (unlike with NPT member states)...,” he said. “(But) it satisfies India’s needs while maintaining all the agency’s legal requirements.”
“As with other safeguards agreements between the agency and member states, the agreement is of indefinite duration. There are no conditions for discontinuation...other than those provided by the safeguards agreement itself.”
Some diplomats were concerned such language might allow India to halt inspections unilaterally if fuel imports were cut off. “There were many statements of support for the plan but also many statements with concern and questions, but no one openly opposed it,” said one Vienna diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Reacting to the development, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Friday, “This is an important day for India, and for our civil nuclear initiative for the resumption of India’s cooperation with our friends abroad.”
India faces a tougher sell at the 45-member NSG, a cartel formed in response to India’s 1974 nuclear test to limit trade in “trigger list” nuclear items—those with civilian or military uses—to NPT member states with good records.
Karin Strohecker contributed to this story.