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India holds off on safeguards process with IAEA

VIENNA (Reuters) - India missed a chance to launch an inspection process required for its nuclear cooperation accord with the United States at a high-level meeting on Wednesday because of domestic opposition, diplomats said.

India's Department of Atomic Energy chief Anil Kakodkar is seen at a news conference in Mumbai in this March 9, 2006 file photo. India missed a chance to launch an inspection process required for its nuclear cooperation accord with the U.S. at a high-level meeting on Wednesday because of domestic opposition, diplomats said. REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe

India’s atomic energy director, Anil Kakodkar, met U.N. nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei, but did not start a process to set up International Atomic Energy Agency inspections for its civilian reactors, diplomats said.

An IAEA safeguards agreement covering India’s nuclear reactors is a requirement for implementing the U.S.-India nuclear accord, which has split New Delhi’s governing coalition.

“A new safeguards accord was not mentioned in the bilateral meeting. It seems the Indians must resolve their domestic situation first. They did not ask the agency to start drafting an agreement,” said a senior diplomat close to the IAEA.

Kakodkar, who met ElBaradei on the fringes of a 149-nation IAEA assembly, told the meeting India wanted international civil atomic cooperation but no interference in its fuel enrichment industry. He did not mention the U.S.-India pact.

The deal has destabilised New Delhi’s governing coalition. Communist junior partners say it threatens India’s sovereign nuclear energy programme, which has yielded both power and atomic bombs, and have threatened to walk out if it proceeds.

It is up to India to launch the process with the agency.

ElBaradei will go to India on Oct. 8 for a five-day visit, an agency official said. The trip was planned before an IAEA-India inspections pact became an issue but ElBaradei will have talks with top Indian officials.

“FREE FROM INTERRUPTIONS”

“We are looking forward to the possibility of opening up international civil nuclear cooperation,” Kakodkar told the assembly. “We expect (this) to be sustainable, free from interruptions and consistent with national policy of closed fuel cycle.”

These “interruptions” refer to fears the U.S. might, in the future, interfere in India’s nuclear programme if it was unhappy with its direction and might impose curbs on Indian fuel enrichment that can yield electricity or weapons.

The pact would allow New Delhi to import U.S. nuclear fuel and reactors to help meet soaring energy needs. It is under fire from disarmament advocates since India never joined the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and tested atomic bombs.

Washington touts the deal as inaugurating strategic ties between the world’s two largest democracies, bringing India’s civilian nuclear programme under international oversight for the first time and opening a lucrative market for U.S. business.

Kakodkar spoke a day after India’s main Communist party urged the government not to take steps to realise the accord, such as an IAEA safeguards arrangement, for at least six months and warned of a “political crisis” if the government went ahead.

The accord would also require the approval of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group that governs global atomic trade, before being introduced in the U.S. Congress for ratification.

India will need a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group because the NSG officially does not approve trade with countries that have not signed the NPT.

“I think the U.S. and India nuclear deal is ... going to be successful, we are going to move forward on it, and you’ll see that happen in the next few months,” U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told reporters in Ankara on Wednesday.

U.S. critics say the accord sends the wrong message: by rewarding a non-member of the NPT, it could undercut a U.S.-led campaign to curtail Iran’s shadowy nuclear programme and open the way for a potential arms race in South Asia.

Additional reporting by Paul DeBendern in Ankara

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