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Nuclear Suppliers Updated on U.S.-Indian Deal

Wade Boese

Indian officials recently met for the first time with representatives of nuclear supplier states to sell them on a controversial U.S.-Indian deal to expand global civilian nuclear commerce with India. But New Delhi failed to address all the concerns and questions group members have raised.

The 45 members of the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) met Oct. 11-12 in Vienna for a regular Consultative Group meeting to assess worldwide nuclear developments. Participating governments seek to coordinate their nuclear export controls to prevent commercial transfers from abetting nuclear weapons programs.

The group convened two days after North Korea announced its first nuclear test and authorized an Oct. 12 statement urging all countries to “exercise extreme vigilance” to prevent trade that might benefit Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

The NSG’s origins go back to another test: India’s 1974 nuclear blast, which used plutonium produced by a Canadian-supplied reactor using U.S.-origin heavy water designated for peaceful purposes. Several countries formed the group the following year to enact stricter export standards.

In 1992, at the instigation of the United States, the NSG adopted a rule applying to all but the five recognized nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—under the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The dictate said that, for other countries to enjoy full nuclear trade, they must open up their entire nuclear enterprises to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is charged with enforcing safeguard agreements. India, which has never signed the NPT, refused, resulting in NSG members significantly limiting exports to India. The IAEA safeguards agreements help verify that countries do not exploit civilian nuclear facilities, materials, and technologies to build bombs.

As part of their July 2005 initiative to expand nuclear trade, Washington and New Delhi are seeking to persuade the NSG to exempt India from the 1992 rule. (See ACT, September 2005.) Several group members, including France, Russia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, have expressed their support. Some suppliers, however, worry that exempting India might send the wrong signal to other countries that have accepted the NPT basic bargain of forswearing nuclear weapons in return for full civilian nuclear trade. They contend that some states might reconsider their restraint if India is granted the same trade privileges while retaining and possibly expanding its nuclear arsenal.

Indian officials made their case Oct. 12 to the group. The confidential presentation, which reportedly stressed India’s need for nuclear energy and determination not to cap its nuclear weapons sector, did not assuage all the concerns of critics and skeptics, two NSG member officials told Arms Control Today in separate October interviews.

Suppliers conducted no vote on the U.S.-Indian initiative. The group, which operates by consensus, typically makes decisions at a once-a-year plenary; the next one is scheduled for April in South Africa.

Much remains unsettled about the U.S.-Indian deal, so the NSG may not face an April decision. Congress has not passed legislation changing U.S. law to authorize full civilian nuclear trade with India. In addition, the IAEA and New Delhi have not started negotiations on the duration and scope of the agency’s oversight because India is balking at the notion of permanent IAEA safeguards for its entire civilian nuclear sector. (See ACT, October 2006.)

Moreover, U.S. and Indian negotiators have not completed the so-called 123 agreement, which codifies the terms of U.S. nuclear trade with a foreign state. Such an agreement is required by section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. Negotiators first met in June but have not reconvened. New Delhi has been waiting on Congress to pass a final bill on the deal, which could occur in November or December.

Suppliers also failed at the October meeting to align on two additional proposals. One calls for criteria to govern exports of uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies, both of which can be used to produce nuclear fuel or fissile material for nuclear bombs. The other would block nuclear trade with a country unless it had enacted an additional protocol delegating the IAEA greater powers to uncover illicit activity.