Hurdles to civilian nuclear trade between the United States and India could be removed by May next year if the two Houses of US Congress jointly approve the deal within the next week, Washington's envoy to India David Mulford said on Wednesday.
Separate legislations that allow Washington to sell nuclear fuel and equipment to India have been endorsed by the US House of Representatives and the Senate.
The two bills now need to be merged and jointly approved by the two chambers before President George W Bush signs it, but India is worried about several certification conditions in them and moves are afoot to get them removed.
Negotiations to reconcile the bills and approve them are expected next month in the "lame duck" Republican-led Congress which surrenders power to the Democrats in January.
"If that (reconciliation) happens, it will happen in the next 4-5 days and that will finally mean a change in the law," Mulford said.
"I would imagine all crucial components of the rolling process would be in place by May," he added.
The deal aims to overturn a three-decade ban on nuclear trade between the US and India, which has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has tested nuclear weapons.
Besides joint approval by the two chambers, the deal also needs agreement on a bilateral pact between the two governments, and the backing of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The deal has been slammed by a vocal non-proliferation lobby in the US which says the agreement allows New Delhi to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal and would foster an arms race among India and nuclear rivals Pakistan and China.
Mulford, speaking on the sidelines of a India-US business summit, said the debate on the nuclear deal signalled America's awareness that New Delhi was a critical partner of Washington.
One indication of that interest was the presence of at least 25 US nuclear firms at the summit to explore business opportunities in India after the deal is clinched, industry officials said.
India, which now produces about 3,500 MW of nuclear power, aims to boost it to 30,000 MW over the next 20 years to meet the demands of its booming economy, Asia's fourth largest.
"In value terms, the immediate market is of about $100 billion and it's a level playing field which means there will be companies from all over the world," said Ron Somers, president of the US-India Business Council, an industry lobby group.
US firm Thorium Power, which develops non-proliferating nuclear fuel, said on Wednesday it was in talks with the Indian government and energy firms to sell nuclear reactor technology.
"Once the legal frame is established we can sign deals. We are talking to four to five companies," said Dennis K Hays, Thorium's vice-president.