A top US envoy welcomed Thursday India's decision to open up some of its civilian nuclear reactors to UN inspections as a pre-condition for a controversial nuclear cooperation deal between the United States and India.
But analysts said the so-called safeguards agreement between India and the International Atomic Energy Agency -- expected to be approved by the UN atomic watchdog's 35-member board at the end of July or early August -- contains major loopholes.
"We welcome India's willingness to move forward with this historic initiative," the US ambassador to the IAEA Gregory Schulte told journalists in a telephone conference call.
He was speaking a day after India submitted the draft safeguards agreement to the IAEA's board of governors. Their approval is one of the crucial hurdles the US-India deal must pass before it can go ahead.
Much of the restricted 23-page document, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, is in line with safeguard agreements signed between the IAEA and other countries.
But critics are worried that a clause in the agreement's preamble may make it possible for India to end inspections on certain plants and use them to manufacture fissile material for atomic weapons instead of nuclear fuel.
The draft clause states that India "may take corrective measures to ensure uninterrupted operation of its civilian nuclear reactors in the event of disruption of foreign fuel supplies."
The IAEA "should clarify for the record what 'corrective actions' India might be contemplating before taking a decision on the agreement," said Daryll Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based think tank, the Arms Control Association.
"If India interprets the agreement as allowing it to remove facilities or materials from safeguards in the event of a fuel supply interruption (which would only likely happen in the event that India resumes testing), this would violate the principle of permanent safeguards over all nuclear materials and facilities."
Furthermore, the document does not contain the usual list of facilities -- 14 out of India's total 22 reactors -- to be under IAEA supervision.
Admittedly, they have been listed in a separate and widely circulated Civil Nuclear Separation Plan drawn up two years ago by India.
But eyebrows were raised by their omission in the IAEA safeguards agreement.
"It is ordinary practice that such agreement list the facility or facilities that would be covered by the agreement at the time the board of governors considers them for approval. IAEA member states should not take a decision until that list is made available," said Kimball of the Arms Control Association.
US envoy Schulte was adamant that the US-India deal "will help strengthen the global non-proliferation regime and help India meet its growing energy demands in an environmentally friendly way."
Proponents of the US-India accord say it will bring India -- which has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- into the non-proliferation mainstream.
In addition, it will bring India, which is running out of uranium to fuel its reactors, into the fold of global nuclear commerce after being shut out for decades.
But critics argue the US-India deal undermines international nuclear non-proliferation efforts because it gives a country outside the NPT, and which developed atomic bombs in secret and conducted a nuclear test in 1974, access to US nuclear fuel and reactor technology.
In addition to securing IAEA approval, India must also obtain a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a group of 45 states that export nuclear fuel and technology whose rules ban trade with non-NPT states.
Finally, the US Congress must then ratify the deal.
"There is much that needs to be done," US envoy Schulte said.
"We will work closely with India, our NSG partners and the US Congress to ensure that the initiative is implemented as expeditiously as possible," he said.
The NSG is not expected to discuss an exemption to its rules for India until September and that could mean the US-India deal may not be ratified before President George W Bush leaves office in January.