The group of nations which regulates the global nuclear trade has approved a US proposal to lift restrictions on selling nuclear technology to India.
The controversial deal now needs to be ratified by the US Congress before it can be implemented.
India says the deal is vital for it to meet its civil energy demands.
The approval came after India pledged to keep its nuclear non-proliferation commitments and to uphold a voluntary moratorium on testing atomic weapons.
‘End of isolation’
It took the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) nearly three days of protracted negotiations in Vienna to reach agreement.
Critics of the deal say it creates a dangerous precedent – effectively allowing India to expand its nuclear power industry without requiring it to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as other nations must.
They say the deal would undermine the arguments for isolating Iran over its nuclear programme and be a disaster for international non-proliferation efforts.
Indian PM Manmohan Singh described the deal as “momentous”
But US and Indian officials hailed the agreement as one that would help limit the unregulated spread of nuclear technology and material while allowing India to meet its energy demands with a “clean and reliable” supply.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the NSG decision “marks the end of India’s decades-long isolation from the nuclear mainstream and of the technology denial regime”.
Austria, New Zealand and Ireland lifted their objection to the US proposal after India made a formal pledge to not share sensitive nuclear technology or material and to uphold its moratorium on testing nuclear weapons.
The breakthrough reportedly came after US President George W Bush lobbied members of the NSG.
“This is a critically important moment for meeting the energy needs in India, and indeed dealing with the global need for clean and reliable energy supplies,” said John Rood, acting US undersecretary of state for arms control.
The US restricted nuclear co-operation with India after it tested a nuclear weapon in 1974.
The current deal is the centrepiece of US efforts to bolster ties with India. However, the Bush administration must attempt to rush it through Congress before legislators break to prepare for November’s elections – held at the same time as the presidential vote.
India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the communists – former allies of the governing Congress party who withdrew support for the government over the nuclear deal – have accused the government of “deceiving” the country.
“There is a huge difference between what the US government is telling its Congress and what our government is telling us,” BJP leader Yashwant Sinha told reporters.
Under the terms of the deal, India would open 14 civilian nuclear facilities to inspection – but its nuclear weapons sites would remain off-limits.
Critics fear assistance to India’s civil programme could free-up additional radioactive material for bomb-making purposes.