Averting a Nonproliferation Disaster

Daryl G. Kimball

Decision time has arrived on the controversial proposal to roll back three decades of nuclear trade restrictions on India, which violated peaceful nuclear cooperation agreements by detonating its first nuclear bomb in 1974.

As early as Sept. 4-5, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) will reconvene to consider a revised U.S. proposal to permit nuclear trade with India. At a special meeting of the 45-member group last month, the Bush administration proposed an India-specific exemption from NSG guidelines, which currently require full-scope IAEA safeguards as a condition of supply. Bowing to Indian demands, the Bush team called for a “clean” and “unconditional” waiver that would have allowed unrestricted nuclear trade with India at the discretion of each NSG member state.

To their credit, more than 20 states essentially said “no thanks” and proposed more than 50 amendments and modifications that would establish some basic but vitally important restrictions and conditions on nuclear trade with India. Many of these amendments track with the restrictions and conditions established in 2006 U.S. legislation regulating U.S. nuclear trade with India, which include the termination of nuclear trade if India resumes testing and a ban on the transfer of uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technology.

Incredibly, U.S. officials are resisting even these most basic measures. As the Department of State’s Richard Boucher said in an Aug. 19 interview, “[S]ome would like to see all the provisions of the Hyde Act legislated in some international fashion. We don’t think that is the right way.”

Although acknowledging India’s legitimate interest in diversifying its energy options, like-minded countries, including Austria, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Switzerland, correctly recognize that the Bush approach is deeply flawed and would effectively end the NSG as a meaningful entity. It is vital that these and other responsible states stand their ground.

Why? Any India-specific exemption from NSG guidelines would erode the credibility of NSG efforts to ensure that access to peaceful nuclear trade and technology is available only to those states that meet global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament standards.

Contrary to the Orwellian claims of its proponents, the deal would not bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream. Unlike 179 other countries, India has not signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It continues to produce fissile material and expand its nuclear arsenal. As one of only three states never to have signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), it has not made a legally binding commitment to achieve nuclear disarmament.

In order to maintain its option to resume nuclear testing, India is seeking bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements that help provide it with strategic fuel reserves and lifetime fuel guarantees. This flatly contradicts a provision in U.S. law championed by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) that stipulates that fuel supplies be limited to reasonable reactor operating requirements.

Given India’s demands, the revised U.S. proposal will likely only pay lip service to the other NSG states’ concerns. Any such proposal should be flatly rejected as unsound and irresponsible. To be effective, NSG guidelines must establish clear and unambiguous terms and conditions for the initiation of nuclear trade and possible termination of nuclear trade.

If NSG states agree under pressure from an outgoing U.S. administration to blow a hole in NSG guidelines in order to allow a few states to profit from nuclear trade with India, they should at a minimum:

  • establish a policy that if India resumes nuclear testing or violates its safeguards agreements, trade involving nuclear items with India shall be terminated and unused fuel supplies returned;
  • expressly prohibit any transfer of reprocessing, enrichment, or heavy-water production items or technology, which can be used to make bomb material;
  • regularly review India’s compliance with its nonproliferation obligations and commitments; and
  • call on India to join with four of the five original nuclear-weapon states in declaring that it has stopped fissile material production and call on India to transform its nuclear test moratorium pledge into a legally binding commitment.

Some Indian officials have threatened they may walk away from the deal if the NSG establishes even these most basic requirements. If that occurs, so be it.

The Indian nuclear deal would be a nonproliferation disaster, especially now. The current U.S. proposal threatens to further undermine the NPT, the nuclear safeguards system, and efforts to prevent the proliferation of sensitive fuel-cycle technologies. Absent curbs on Indian nuclear testing and fissile material production, it would also indirectly contribute to the expansion of India’s nuclear arsenal with adverse consequences for the nuclear arms race in Asia.

For those world leaders who are serious about advancing nuclear disarmament, holding all states to their international commitments, and strengthening the NPT, it is time to stand up and be counted.