VIENNA, Austria - A group of nations that export nuclear material meets here Thursday to discuss whether to grant India access to nuclear fuel and technology, a decision crucial to finalizing a landmark U.S.-India deal lifting a ban on such sales.
The deal would reverse more than three decades of U.S. policy with India, a country that has not signed international nonproliferation accords and has tested nuclear weapons.
To implement it, India must strike separate agreements with the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the International Atomic Energy Agency. It then goes to Congress in Washington for approval. Earlier this month, India got the green light from the IAEA.
It appears unlikely the 45-nation group, which operates by consensus, will agree to relax its rules and approve an India-specific waiver during the secretive, two-day meeting. The exemption would apply only to India and give it access to technology and fuel normally reserved for countries that — unlike New Delhi —have signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and allow the full inspection of their nuclear facilities.
India first conducted a nuclear test explosion 34 years ago after it broke out of its foreign-supplied civilian program to develop atomic arms. The Nuclear Suppliers Groups was created in response. It is currently headed by Germany.
Some countries are enticed by the prospect of doing more business with India and appear to back a U.S. argument that it would bring the country into the nuclear nonproliferation mainstream.
But others are concerned that exporting nuclear fuel and technology to a country that has not made a legally binding nuclear disarmament pledge could set a dangerous precedent and weaken efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and materials.
Beyond Nuclear Suppliers Group countries with concerns, Iran, which is under U.N. sanctions for refusing to freeze its nuclear activities is sure to complain, arguing that India — which developed nuclear arms in secret — is now being rewarded with access to atomic technology. Tehran argues that its activities are peaceful but there are international concerns it trying to develop nuclear weapons.
There also appears to be some resistance to a "clean" and "unconditional" exemption for India wanted by both New Delhi and Washington.
Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association said more than a dozen countries have "concerns of one kind or another."
In an Aug. 1 statement, the Austrian foreign ministry said IAEA approval did not in any way set a precedent for a decision by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The Norwegian foreign ministry, stressing its reservations were not India-specific, said Oslo was "concerned about the implications to the international nonproliferation regime," and in particular the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
A Swiss foreign ministry spokesman said his country's stance would depend on whether agreement is reached on an exemption that contains the "necessary nonproliferation guarantees."
Some of the critical countries are pushing for a clause that would revoke privileges for India if it resumed nuclear weapons testing.