VIENNA, Nov 21 (Reuters) India and the International Atomic Energy Agency agreed today to start negotiations on putting Indian reactors under IAEA safeguards, clearing a key hurdle to closing a US-Indian nuclear supply pact.
New Delhi's atomic energy chief and the UN nuclear watchdog's director took the long-delayed step after domestic Indian political opposition eased following months of deadlock.
To launch the pact, New Delhi -- which does not belong to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- must submit its declared civilian atomic reactors to IAEA monitoring and then win the approval of a global group controlling sensitive nuclear trade.
After prolonged resistance over fears the deal would weaken India's sovereignty, the communist allies of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government relented last week and said moves to seal the accord could be pursued on certain conditions.
An IAEA statement said agency Director Mohamed ElBaradei and Indian Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar agreed at a half-hour meeting ''to initiate consultations on an India-specific safeguards agreement''.
It said India and the IAEA Secretariat would start technical negotiations later this week in Vienna. The goal is ground rules for regular inspections at Indian reactors to ensure they are used to produce only peaceful energy.
UN officials told Reuters the talks could take some weeks.
Kakodkar made no comment to reporters after the meeting.
It was earlier thought the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors might approve an India safeguards accord at its regular year-end meeting on Thursday and Friday. But the extended political wrangling in India dashed that prospect.
RACE AGAINST TIME US and Indian officials are anxious to get the 2005 deal ratified before the United States plunges into its November 2008 election race, which could sideline it indefinitely.
The India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement aims to reverse a three-decade ban on Indian access to US atomic materials.
Washington says it highlights a new strategic partnership that will promote international stability.
The pact will also require the consensus approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group before ratification by the US Congress. The 45-nation group discussed it last week but reached no conclusion since there was no India-IAEA deal yet.
REUTERS RSA RN2047