IAEA to start nuclear safeguards talks with India

The International Atomic Energy Agency begins talks with India on Friday to bring Indian nuclear sites under IAEA monitoring for the first time as part of a US-Indian nuclear energy pact, the UN watchdog said.
In a statement, the Vienna-based IAEA said a senior agency delegation would visit New Delhi for two days to “discuss the application of safeguards to nuclear material and facilities that constitute India’s civilian nuclear programme”.
Two key US congressional committees last month endorsed the July 2005 nuclear co-operation accord struck by President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, lending momentum to a controversial deal.
The pact grants India access to US nuclear fuel and reactors for the first time in 30 years although the giant Asian nation has never joined the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, the IAEA’s covenant, and developed atomic bombs in secret.
Critics say the accord will weaken global non-proliferation efforts, in particular undercut a US-led campaign to curtail Iran’s nuclear programme, while supporters call it a vital US opening to a new geopolitical ally.
Before Congress can give final approval, India must agree a system of inspections for its civilian nuclear facilities with the IAEA, as well as complete negotiations with Washington on technical aspects of the agreement.
An IAEA diplomat, asking not to be named, said the talks on Friday and Saturday would be the first in a series that could take up to a few months.
“This will be new territory for us as we have never had a (presence) there before. This is the start of technical discussions,” the diplomat told Reuters.
“It will be up to India to decide which sites are to be safeguarded. I think Congress wants India to wrap up a deal with the IAEA before they go to a vote.”
The IAEA delegation was to be headed by its safeguards director, Olli Heinonen, who has also overseen IAEA inspections in Iran and investigations into suspected military links with Tehran’s uranium-enrichment programme.
Many non-proliferation experts are concerned the US-India deal would allow New Delhi to raise nuclear weapons production and undermine international non-proliferation standards.
Fending off critics, the Bush administration maintains that India, the world’s most populous democracy which often was at odds with Washington during the Cold War, has become a key pillar in an evolving geopolitical power arrangement.

Copyright Reuters, 2006