Next Stop: The NSG

Daryl G. Kimball

Within months, the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) will move from the periphery to the center of a year-long debate about whether India should become eligible for full civil nuclear trade even though it does not yet observe the nonproliferation practices expected of other states. The outcome will have a profound impact on the future of the entire nonproliferation system.

The NSG was formed as a direct response to India’s 1974 bomb test, which used plutonium produced by foreign-supplied reactors that were supposed to be operated only for peaceful uses. Although the group’s guidelines are not binding, it has helped curtail the flow of dual-use technologies, materials, and nuclear fuel and reinforced the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

The NSG debate will provide an opportunity for action by the leaders of states who correctly believe the U.S.-Indian proposal could further erode the nonproliferation system and allow India to expand its nuclear stockpile. When that time comes, possibly as soon as October, they have a responsibility to insist on a better alternative.

In June, two key congressional committees approved bills based on a July 2005 proposal from President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. They called for granting India an unprecedented exemption from U.S. laws and NSG guidelines that restrict nuclear trade with states, such as India, that do not allow international safeguards of all nuclear sites. Among the provisions added by Congress, however, is a requirement that the president must win consensus approval from the NSG for nuclear trade with India.

So far, the NSG remains split on whether to grant India a country-specific exemption. France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are the main proponents, while the majority of other states have unresolved questions and concerns. Meanwhile, China and a handful of other states, including Austria, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden remain opposed to creating a loophole for India without additional disarmament commitments from New Delhi.

One of the concerns of the skeptics is that an India-specific exemption from NSG guidelines would compromise efforts to restrict peaceful nuclear trade only to those states that have joined the NPT and meet global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament standards.

The U.S. proposal has already encouraged Russia to ignore NSG guidelines and supply India’s two Tarapur light-water reactors with nuclear fuel. At a later point, China may also seek similar exemptions for Pakistan, one of its allies and nuclear trading partners.

Many concerned NSG members also realize that the proposed separation of India’s civilian and military nuclear facilities and the application of international safeguards to additional civil facilities is more symbol than substance. If India gains access to advanced nuclear equipment, especially uranium-enrichment and plutonium-separation-related technology, it could be replicated and used to improve India’s weapons program.

Despite objections from the White House and New Delhi, the Senate legislation includes a partial prohibition on the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technology. But unless the NSG states also agree to bar such transfers, India could obtain these dual-use technologies from other willing suppliers.

Given that India has not joined the five original nuclear-weapon states in halting the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for bombs, many NSG governments worry that supplying nuclear fuel to India could allow it to devote its limited supply of uranium exclusively to its weapons program. That could lead to further arms competition among China, India, and Pakistan. So far, Congress has failed to require the president to certify that U.S. nuclear trade does not, in any way, assist India’s bomb program.

Unless the NSG requires that India join a multilateral fissile material cutoff regime before getting the full benefits of peaceful nuclear trade, India could increase its annual bomb production rate from about six to ten bombs to several dozen. The NSG should also condition full nuclear trade on the formalization of India’s eight-year-old nuclear test moratorium.

With Congress poised to vote on the committee-approved legislation for renewed U.S. civil nuclear trade with India, Washington, Paris, and London can be expected to press the NSG to take action this year. But there should be no rush to judgment.

Before the United States can deliver nuclear-related goods under the deal, India must first negotiate a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. U.S. and Indian negotiators must also resolve at least six major points of contention on a bilateral agreement for nuclear cooperation.

The Bush-Singh proposal to make a special exception to the nonproliferation rules and standards for India has the potential to undermine the NSG and the nonproliferation system. For NSG states concerned about the fragility of the nonproliferation system and the adverse impact of the India nuclear deal, this is the time for them to stand up in defense of their security priorities and the future of the nuclear nonproliferation system.