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"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Nuclear Suppliers Still Split on U.S.-Indian Deal

Wade Boese

The world’s leading nuclear supplier states remain divided on a U.S. initiative to exempt India from international rules restricting civilian nuclear trade with New Delhi. The 45 members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) also are at odds on two proposals for adding regulations governing their nuclear exports.

Group members convened June 1-2 in Brasilia for an annual decision-making meeting, but no major policy decisions were adopted because of differences among the participants. The voluntary group operates by consensus to coordinate nuclear export controls among its members, which range from nuclear-armed powers such as the United States and Russia to the small, non-nuclear island nation of Malta.

India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan are countries with significant nuclear programs that are outside the group. These four countries are barred from importing key nuclear materials and technologies from NSG members because, in part, they fail to meet a 1992 NSG requirement that importers submit their entire nuclear complexes to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Such measures are intended to deter and detect the diversion of civilian nuclear technologies to building bombs.

President George W. Bush committed last July to clearing away barriers restricting full civilian nuclear trade with India. (See ACT, September 2005.) Now, U.S. officials, backed by their British, French, and Russian counterparts, are urging the NSG to exempt India from the 1992 rule, which was originally conceived and promoted by the United States.

Aside from the four main proponents and some strong critics, such as Sweden and Ireland, most NSG members seem to be on the fence, albeit leaning one way or the other. Before taking a final position, these members, for the most part, want to wait for Congress to act on the initiative, for Washington and New Delhi to complete negotiations on a bilateral cooperation agreement, and for India and the IAEA to conclude a new safeguards arrangement.

Several government officials of NSG members interviewed in June by Arms Control Today said that the Brasilia event saw no notable shifts in members’ positions. A few of these officials attributed the lack of movement to insufficient information provided by India and the United States in response to concerns and questions raised about the deal by NSG members at previous group meetings. Because NSG meetings are supposed to be confidential, the officials declined to be identified for this article.

The officials noted that China, for the first time, declared it would prefer establishing a criteria-based approach for determining whether countries not meeting the 1992 condition should be allowed to engage in nuclear trade, rather than singling out India for special exemption. China has nuclear projects underway with Pakistan, which has told the NSG that the U.S.-Indian initiative might destabilize South Asia. China can fulfill nuclear contracts with Pakistan that predate Beijing joining the NSG in 2004, but it is now restricted in pursuing new deals with Islamabad.

India declined to attend the Brasilia meeting despite being urged to do so by Washington. Although not a NSG member, India has pledged to abide by NSG rules for nuclear commerce.

U.S., British, and French officials reportedly sought to include a positive reference to the U.S.-Indian deal in the group’s closing public statement, but other members were not in favor of doing so. As a result, a June 2 statement by the group simply reported that members had examined and discussed the deal and “agreed to return to this matter.”

The group also will continue talks on two other major proposals on which the Brasilia meeting was unable to reach consensus. Both are outgrowths from a February 2004 Bush speech outlining proposals to stem the spread of unconventional weapons. (See ACT, March 2004.)

The first aims to establish as an NSG trade rule that importers must adhere to an IAEA additional protocol. Such protocols give the agency greater authority to investigate whether illicit nuclear activities are taking place inside a particular country.

Argentina and Brazil, which have not negotiated additional protocols, oppose such a move. So does South Africa, which pointed out that other group members— Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and the United States—have yet to bring their additional protocols into force. France and Russia, major nuclear suppliers, oppose this criterion too, presumably for commercial reasons.

The second U.S. proposal called for barring uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies to countries currently lacking operational facilities for those activities, which can produce both nuclear fuel and the explosive material for nuclear weapons. Last year, after some NSG members objected to an outright ban, the group agreed to devise criteria for judging whether importers should be permitted to receive enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. (See ACT, September 2005.) But members failed to concur on criteria in Brasilia.

Members did agree to exercise stricter control over some nuclear exports, including valves designed for uranium enrichment. Halting Iran’s uranium-enrichment program is a top priority for the United States and some other group members. The group reported that its talks on “current proliferation challenges focused principally on [ Iran].”

Nuclear experts of the group will meet next in October. The date and site of the next annual plenary are not fixed yet because the group has not selected who will serve as its next rotating chairman.