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Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
NSG Makes Little Headway at Meeting

Daniel Horner

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) last month concluded its annual plenary meeting with little apparent progress on two high-profile issues, the potential sale of two reactors from China to Pakistan and the adoption of more-stringent rules for sensitive nuclear exports.

The Chinese-Pakistani deal was not on the formal agenda for the meeting in Christchurch, New Zealand, but sources from participating governments said the matter was discussed.

The group’s June 25 public statement at the end of the meeting does not specifically mention the discussions, but it says that the NSG “took note of briefings on developments concerning non-NSG states. It agreed on the value of ongoing consultation and transparency.”

The planned Chinese sale is an issue for the NSG because the group’s guidelines do not allow the sale of nuclear goods such as reactors and fuel to countries that do not accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on all their nuclear facilities. Pakistan does not have these so-called full-scope safeguards.

When China joined the NSG in 2004, it had already built a power reactor at Pakistan’s Chashma site. It claimed at the time that, under the NSG’s “grandfather” provisions, it was entitled to build a second reactor, on the grounds that the second project was covered in its existing agreement with Pakistan. According to several accounts, the group agreed that the second reactor would be allowable under the grandfather provision but that subsequent power reactor sales would not.

In the weeks before the June 21-25 Christchurch meeting, the U.S. government said the sale of reactors beyond Chashma-1 and -2 would be “inconsistent with NSG guidelines and China’s commitments to the NSG.” (See ACT, June 2010.)

In its public statements, China has responded to questions about the deal in general terms. At a June 24 press conference, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, “China and Pakistan, following the principle of equality and mutual benefit, have been cooperating on nuclear energy for civilian use. Our cooperation is consistent with the two countries’ respective international obligations, entirely for peaceful purpose[s] and subject to IAEA safeguard[s] and supervision.”

It it not clear what additional information China provided at the Christchurch meeting. According to a European diplomat, the discussion was “not confrontational.”

Clarification Sought

In a June 30 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a U.S. Department of State official said, “We are still waiting for more information from China to clarify China’s intended cooperation with Pakistan, in light of China’s NSG commitments.”

According to the official, “The United States has reiterated concern that the transfer of new reactors at Chasma appears to extend beyond cooperation that was ‘grandfathered’ when China was approved for membership in the NSG. If not covered by the grandfather clause, such cooperation would require a specific exception approved by consensus of the NSG.”

In 2008 the NSG, led by the United States, granted an exemption making India eligible to receive nuclear exports from NSG members. Like Pakistan, India does not have full-scope safeguards.

The NSG, which currently has 46 members, operates by consensus. It is not a formal organization, and its export guidelines are nonbinding. Before the 2008 NSG exemption, Russia made and carried out deals with India for reactors and fuel, justifying them on the basis of interpretations of the NSG guidelines that other members considered overly expansive.

Enrichment and Reprocessing

A long-standing issue for the NSG has been its effort to adopt a more rigorous standard for exports relating to uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. Since 2004, the group has been discussing a new, so-called criteria-based set of guidelines for enrichment and reprocessing transfers, under which recipients of these proliferation-sensitive exports would have to meet a list of preset requirements. The list drafted by the group includes adherence to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, full-scope safeguards, and an additional protocol, which gives the IAEA enhanced inspection authority. However, the NSG members have not been able to overcome certain states’ objections to the proposal. Current NSG guidelines simply call for members to exercise “restraint” with respect to enrichment and reprocessing exports.

At the end of 2008, the suppliers appeared to be close to an agreement (see ACT, December 2008), but since then they have not been able to reach consensus. According to the Christchurch public statement, “Participating Governments agreed to continue considering ways to further strengthen guidelines dealing with the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies.”

In a June 27 e-mail to Arms Control Today, the European diplomat said that “while progress was made there was no consensus” on the matter. Before the meeting, observers said the main objections were coming from South Africa and Turkey. The diplomat declined to identify the sources of the objections at the meeting but said, “The delegations which have had difficulties in the past continue to have problems.”

Meanwhile, at their June 25-26 meeting in Muskoka, Canada, the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries extended their policy to adopt on a national basis the proposed NSG guidelines on enrichment and reprocessing transfers. The leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States said in their summit communiqué, “We reiterate our commitment as found in paragraph 8 of the L’Aquila Statement on Non-Proliferation.”

Paragraph 8 of the L’Aquila statement, issued at the July 2009 G-8 summit in Italy, said the eight countries would implement as “national policy” for a year the draft NSG guidelines on enrichment and reprocessing and urged the NSG “to accelerate its work and swiftly reach consensus this year to allow for global implementation of a strengthened mechanism on transfers of enrichment and reprocessing facilities, equipment, and technology.”