Nuclear Export Criteria Lacks Consensus

Wade Boese

Leading nuclear exporters at a recent Berlin meeting apparently failed to reach consensus on adopting new criteria to regulate certain sensitive nuclear technology transfers. Meanwhile, India's effort to win an exemption from that group's current trade restrictions remains stalled by Indian domestic politics.

Heading into their annual plenary May 22-23, the 45 members of the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG ) were debating criteria to limit which countries would be eligible to acquire uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies, which can be used to make nuclear fuel for reactors as well as the key material for nuclear weapons. (See ACT, May 2008 .) The group's sparse post-meeting statement made no mention of the criteria, indicating the NSG did not find the required consensus to adopt them.

France introduced the criteria concept to the group in 2004, and the possible criteria have been evolving ever since. They include requirements that potential recipients be states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and have no outstanding breaches of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards intended to prevent diversions of nuclear technologies from peaceful purposes to weapons activities. The first criterion would rule out India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan, while Iran would be excluded by the second criterion.

The proposed criteria is intended to bolster the NSG guidelines, which vaguely state that group members "should exercise restraint" in exporting "sensitive facilities, technologies, and material usable for nuclear weapons." The Bush administration had been pushing the group to ban enrichment and reprocessing exports to countries lacking operational facilities for those purposes, but some members resisted that approach as too severe. President George W. Bush argued in a February 2004 speech that enrichment and reprocessing were unnecessary for peaceful nuclear programs. (See ACT, March 2004 .)

The Bush administration recently signaled a change in course by offering its own criteria ideas. It also proposed that permissible enrichment and reprocessing exports be conducted in ways to impede recipients from replicating the technologies or building their own indigenous facilities.

This later proposal triggered objections from Canada as well as reportedly from fellow NSG member South Africa. Both countries have large uranium deposits but no current enrichment capabilities. Exporters can profit more from selling enriched uranium than just uranium, a consideration that has been assuming greater significance in Ottawa and Pretoria as a growing number of countries eye starting or increasing nuclear energy operations.

India is one of those countries, but its nuclear expansion efforts have been constrained by an NSG rule that limits nuclear trade with non-nuclear-weapon states lacking comprehensive IAEA safeguards on their entire nuclear complex. Although India is estimated to possess up to 100 nuclear warheads, it is classified as a non-nuclear-weapon state by the NPT, which India has not signed.

The Bush administration agreed in July 2005 to help India win an exemption from the NSG rule (see ACT, September 2005 ), but that effort appears to be faltering. The United States had wanted the process advanced far enough to enable the NSG to exempt India at the Berlin meeting. India, however, has yet to finalize a new IAEA safeguards agreement for select Indian nuclear facilities, a precondition for a possible NSG decision.

Although negotiations with the IAEA have produced a draft agreement, the coalition government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been unable to persuade India's leftist parties to support finalizing the agreement with the agency. Those parties have threatened to withdraw their support for Singh's coalition if it moves ahead with the IAEA agreement without their approval, raising the risk of early elections that could topple the coalition. The leftist parties' opposition stems from their broader hostility to closer relations with the United States.

After a failed May 6 meeting, Singh's coalition postponed a May 28 meeting to win over the leftist parties. Unless it is willing to risk the leftist parties following through on their threats, the government's move ensures that the draft safeguards agreement will not be submitted for the necessary approval of the IAEA Board of Governors at its June 2-6 meeting. The next scheduled board meeting is Sept. 22-26, and the next NSG plenary will be in 2009.

Those dates are well past the time frame that U.S. officials envisioned for action by both bodies. U.S. lawmakers and Bush administration officials months ago indicated that the IAEA and NSG processes had to be finished by June for Congress to have sufficient time to vote this year on a bilateral U.S.-Indian nuclear trade agreement negotiated last July. (See ACT, September 2007 .) Bush administration officials have warned Singh's government that the next U.S. administration may amend or drop support for the U.S.-Indian initiative if it is not completed before 2009.

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