WASHINGTON -- The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has decided in Vienna to approve a nuclear inspection regime necessary for the United States to share atomic technology and fuel with India.
The inspection guidelines, approved by the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors, would require India to permit UN monitors access to 14 of its nuclear reactors by 2014. India now has, or will have by that year, 22 reactors.
Muhammad el-Baradei, the director-general of the IAEA, appeared to support the proposed inspection program when he spoke before the decision was made.
"The 'umbrella' nature of this agreement provides a more efficient mechanism for ensuring that safeguards requirements can be met," he said. "It satisfies India's needs while maintaining all the agency's legal requirements."
The U.S. envoy to the IAEA, Gregory Schulte, argued in favor of the program, saying it was similar to others that the agency has approved in the past. And he contended that without the IAEA inspection regime, there could be no safeguards on India's handling of nuclear material.
Allowing India to import nuclear fuel and technology is considered questionable by some because the country is not a signatory of Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and has tested nuclear weapons.
But sharing nuclear fuel and technology with India is an important initiative of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. He's argued that this is the best way of bringing India into the community of responsible nuclear countries, even though it's refused to sign the NPT.
Pakistan -- which also has tested nuclear weapons -- wrote a letter to the IAEA arguing against approval of the inspections program. It said approval would spark a weapons race in the Asian subcontinent.
Also speaking against the deal was Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonproliferation advocacy group in Washington. He said the terms of the deal are unclear about whether it would allow India to end or suspend the inspections if its supply of nuclear fuel were interrupted.
Until now, India has been unable to import nuclear technology or fuel because it has tested nuclear weapons and hasn't signed the NPT. Today's approval of the inspection regime is essential to India's deal with the United States to end that isolation.
But India faces two more hurdles. Its deal with Washington would be void unless it's approved by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an association of 45 countries that supply nuclear materials who have agreed to put strict controls on the export of these materials.
Washington has been trying to persuade the NSG to approve the IAEA inspection program. The group reportedly is expected to consider the matter in a meeting on August 21-22.
If the NSG approves the program, similar approval must come from the U.S. Congress. With the Democrats now in control both the Senate and House of Representatives, it's unclear whether that approval would be forthcoming.