"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
U.S. Joins Others Seeking Nuclear Export Criteria

Wade Boese

The United States recently gave up its campaign to convince other nuclear suppliers to prohibit certain sensitive nuclear exports. It has now joined an alternative effort to adopt criteria to strictly limit such transactions, although Canada and a few other countries have objected to some aspects of the initiative.

A week after the Feb. 4, 2004, revelation of the Abdul Qadeer Khan nuclear black-market network, President George W. Bush proposed several initiatives to curb the spread of nuclear material and technology. (See ACT, March 2004 .) One of those proposals urged suppliers not to transfer uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies to states without existing facilities for those purposes. Both capabilities can be used to produce nuclear fuel as well as nuclear weapons, but Bush argued that "enrichment and reprocessing are not necessary for nations seeking to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."

Although not all of them are currently operating, enrichment and/or reprocessing facilities exist in 15 countries: Argentina, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Of those states, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands have not developed nuclear weapons or are not under suspicion of covertly pursuing such arms.

U.S. officials took Bush's 2004 proposal to the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) where it has languished for four years without winning the necessary consensus for adoption. The group's 44 other members have gravitated toward a less restrictive initiative to establish eligibility criteria for potential importers seeking enrichment and reprocessing technologies. France first introduced a criteria concept in 2004, and then months later, Canada offered an alternative that has served as the basic model ever since. (See ACT, September 2005 .)

The United States recently offered its first version of the criteria, which was discussed at an April 21-22 NSG meeting in Vienna. Until its latest proposal, the United States had doggedly pursued its sales ban and criticized previous draft criteria as insufficient.

Earlier criteria included a requirement that eligible enrichment and reprocessing importers be party to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which would rule out India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. Another criterion mandated that potential recipients abide by an additional protocol negotiated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Such protocols give the agency enhanced powers to investigate allegations of unlawful use of nuclear technologies to develop weapons.

The United States retained those criteria in its proposal but burnished them with additional factors for exporters to consider as well as stronger conditions on actual exports. For example, the U.S. proposal would limit exporters to a "black box" approach in which they would supply "only complete, turnkey systems and facilities, and participate with the recipient's consent directly in the operation of the facility." The intent is to lessen an importer's access to the underlying technologies and, thereby, the possibility that the technology might be replicated or reverse engineered for other purposes.

Canada, as well as South Africa reportedly to a lesser extent, have objected to the black box approach, arguing that it conflicts with an NPT provision allowing countries to acquire and develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Both countries have significant uranium deposits and are eyeing the option of trying to profit more from developing the capacity to enrich the uranium for sale as nuclear fuel rather than simply exporting uranium.

Meanwhile, Argentina and Brazil maintain their long-standing opposition to the proposed criterion regarding an additional protocol. Neither country has negotiated such an instrument with the IAEA.

Officials of some governments in the NSG told Arms Control Today in April interviews that it was unclear whether these objections might be overcome in time for the group to adopt the criteria approach at the next NSG meeting May 19-22 in Berlin. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because NSG discussions are supposed to be confidential.

Also uncertain is how the NSG debate could affect the July 7-9 Group of Eight summit in Toyako on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Every year since 2004, the leaders of the eight participants (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have endorsed a one-year moratorium on new transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technology.

But Canada's well-known opposition to the U.S. black box approach casts doubt on whether it will again support extending the moratorium, which generally has been perceived as a temporary measure until the NSG takes action to more specifically address growing concerns about enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Current NSG guidelines vaguely state that "suppliers should exercise restraint in the transfer of sensitive facilities, technology, and material usable for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices."

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