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The NSG in a Time of Change: An Interview With NSG Chairman Piet de Klerk

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Piet de Klerk became the chairman of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in June and will hold that position until next June. In August, he became the Dutch ambassador to Jordan. Before that, he was deputy permanent representative of the Netherlands to the United Nations.

De Klerk spoke with Arms Control Today on September 2 by telephone from his office in Amman. In his first interview since assuming the chairmanship of the NSG, he spoke about the group’s June meeting in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. At that meeting, the group agreed, after many years of debate, to revise its rules on exports relating to uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. Other key topics discussed at the meeting were a proposed reactor sale from China to Pakistan and the process under which India could join the NSG. In the interview, de Klerk also laid out ideas for possible changes to the group, such as increasing transparency while maintaining an appropriate level of confidentiality.

The interview was transcribed by Xiaodon Liang. It has been edited for clarity.

ACT: Mr. Ambassador, congratulations on your chairmanship, and thank you for taking the time to talk to us. We’re glad to have this opportunity to talk to you about both the meeting in Noordwijk last June and your plans for the coming year as chairman of the NSG.

De Klerk: My pleasure.

ACT: First, could you briefly give your perspective on the role that the NSG serves in the global nonproliferation architecture today, some 35 years after it was established in the wake of India’s 1974 nuclear test explosion? What changes has the NSG made to remain relevant?

De Klerk: I think the role of the NSG is essentially the same as in the period that it was established. The context in which it was established was the Indian explosion and quite a number of intended nuclear deals that had to do with reprocessing and enrichment capabilities, and those did not always have clear commercial purposes. The suppliers, the original suppliers, came together and agreed to some form of restraint in the export of these sensitive technologies. And I think the main purpose of the NSG now is still close coordination among nuclear exporting countries, especially with a view to the export of sensitive nuclear technologies, so that you limit the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities, without hampering the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. While the nuclear landscape is very different from 35 years ago, I think the essential task of the NSG is still the same.

ACT: I’m thinking of historical events, the [Abdul Qadeer] Khan network and things like that. Have they caused some changes or reorientation in the group?

De Klerk: Yes. The NSG in more practical terms has traveled a long way. When the original export control list, the trigger list, was put together, it mentioned, for example, only plants as such for reprocessing or enrichment.[1] Over the years, in light of the number of developments like the one you mentioned, the trigger list and the dual-use list that was established in the early [19]90s have been made much more specific: What goods and materials are we looking for? In that sense, the export control regime has become much better, much improved.

ACT: At its most recent plenary meeting, on June 23-24, the NSG reached agreement on revisions of paragraphs 6 and 7 of the group’s guidelines, the paragraphs that cover transfers of equipment and technology for uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing [ENR].[2] The new guidelines ban ENR exports to states that have not signed or are not in compliance with the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT], do not allow comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] safeguards, or do not allow more extensive monitoring under the terms of an additional protocol, among other criteria. The old guidelines already called on suppliers to “exercise restraint,” and very few such ENR transfers were taking place. Why were the revisions necessary, and what practical effect will they have?

De Klerk: As you say, there was always the provision that, when it comes to sensitive nuclear technologies, suppliers should “exercise restraint.” Now, suppliers were a bit uneasy, because “restraint” was not a very clearly defined term, and in practice many interpreted it as a ban. [There was a] desire to say much more precisely what we mean by “restraint” so that you can, in cases where there are legitimate needs for enrichment or reprocessing plants, have rules for when to export and when not. After a couple of years, we reached agreement in Noordwijk. I’m very glad that we managed that; it happened on my watch, in Noordwijk, but the heavy lifting was done by my predecessor Jennifer Macmillan [of New Zealand] and the chair of our consultative group Rich Goorevich [of the United States]. If you ask what practical effect it will have, I don’t think it will have much immediate effect. But it will certainly have a stimulating effect on prospective buyers to become party to the additional protocol. It may also stimulate more multinational cooperation. More generally, if countries want to go that route, they now have a series of conditions that they need to satisfy, both in the nonproliferation area as well as with regard to safety and security. So it creates clarity for such countries.

ACT: The NSG has been discussing that revision since 2004. What adjustments to the final language were necessary to produce NSG-wide agreement?

De Klerk: Well, I can’t be too specific about it. I think it’s not wise for me to go into who said what at meetings, but clearly that part on how to formulate the additional protocol as a condition for supply was one of the issues that remained on the table toward the end. I think we found very good language that says “thou shall have” an additional protocol, or pending that, you should be party to a regional accounting and control system. Those two things leave the door ajar for a few countries and only for a limited period of time. So essentially, I think we have formulated that the additional protocol is the norm when it comes to the export of sensitive facilities and equipment and technology.

ACT: I actually wanted to focus on that question of the additional protocol because, as you said, the new guidelines make an additional protocol a condition of supply but make an exception for regional arrangements such as the one Argentina and Brazil have with ABACC [Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials]. Does that set a precedent for other regional arrangements that might not provide the same level of assurance as an additional protocol?

De Klerk: There is, as you said, one such regional accounting and control arrangement that qualifies, and I don’t think the text opens the door for more.

ACT: In other words, you don’t think there will be future similar arrangements, like the Argentine-Brazilian one?

De Klerk: That is what I think is formulated here.

ACT: You mentioned in your earlier responses that language, “pending [the adoption of an additional protocol].”  Do you have indications from the countries involved, the key countries—that is, Argentina and Brazil—that they see it the same way, that they are considering making some sort of movement toward the additional protocol? As you probably know, the Brazilian comments since then and before then have indicated that they do not see it as a requirement, that the additional protocol is strictly a voluntary commitment, it is not required by the NPT, and so on. Do you have some indication that there actually is some discussion on that issue and some movement in that direction by the key countries?

De Klerk: I think, for a number of countries, they look at the additional protocol and additional safeguards obligations very much through the prism of the dichotomy between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states. I cannot speak for the countries concerned. I’ve read certain statements since, but I have no comments, and I think this “pending” formulation is a fair solution to this issue that we had.

ACT: Since the new NSG ENR guidelines were announced, there has been considerable discussion, particularly in the Indian press right after the meeting, about the newly adopted criteria and how they do or do not affect the NSG’s 2008 India-specific exemption from some NSG guidelines. Some U.S. and European officials have said the new ENR guidelines do apply to India and that the 2008 NSG decision on India exempted India from the requirement for comprehensive safeguards but not NSG policies on ENR transfers. As the current NSG chairman, what is your view?

De Klerk: I indeed also read quite a lot of articles in the Indian press in the wake of the Noordwijk meeting, but as you just said, these discussions on ENR started already well before 2008. The text of the Indian exception at the time said you get your exception for full-scope safeguards provided that you satisfy all other guidelines. In particular, [the text] also explicitly mentioned paragraphs 6 and 7. Being party to the NPT was always a condition; it cannot have been a surprise to the Indians that this was the outcome. I am under the impression that that was made clear at the time to the Indians.

ACT: It was made clear at the time of the 2008 exception?

De Klerk: Yes, that’s right. There has never been any other proposal on the table than that being party to the NPT is one of the conditions.

ACT: At the Noordwijk meeting, the NSG member states reportedly discussed the recent U.S. “thought paper” on the subject of a process for Indian membership in the NSG. What views and concerns were expressed at the Noordwijk meeting on that issue?

De Klerk: This is another example where I will not be very specific because saying who said what at what point in time, I think, is not appropriate for the chairman. But clearly we made a start, not even discussing an Indian membership as such, but a preliminary exchange of views on what such a discussion would entail. You can basically look at it from two angles: One is that you say India is India, India is important, and India has a good export control record, so that it would score rather high on many of the factors that we take into account when we discuss membership. Or, you can say, “Wait a minute; it doesn’t score high on all the factors that we take into account, because it is not a party to the NPT or something equivalent.” So these are the two ways of looking at it, and we discussed that. Many rather fundamental points were made because it’s clear if you discuss such membership, you move into a new paradigm, so to speak. At present, all participating governments are NPT members, and India would not come in—if it ever would come in—in all likelihood as an NPT member.

ACT: Given that India already has pledged to follow the NSG’s voluntary export control guidelines, how will the NSG’s core mission be advanced by adding India as a member? Would Indian membership complicate the NSG’s ability to revisit the India-specific exemption if India were to break any of the nonproliferation pledges it has made in the context of that decision?

De Klerk: As a group of nuclear exporters, you want to have clout. You want to be a bloc that has influence on what the rules of the road are, and if you bring countries, important countries, and potential exporters like India on board, it would be good for the clout that the group has. On the other hand, as I said before, in some ways India is a different animal in our zoo, and that would complicate the discussions in the group. So there are pros and cons, and every participating government needs to draw its own conclusion there. But as there is no request for membership, we didn’t have any operational discussion on India’s membership. There was a preliminary exchange and not even in [the] plenary [session].

ACT: Do you think this is an issue that will be resolved anytime soon, perhaps during the Dutch chairmanship?

De Klerk: I think it is more likely that it will take more time. I look at this as a matter of a couple of years.

ACT: China is proposing to sell two additional nuclear power reactors to Pakistan although, under the NSG guidelines, Pakistan is not eligible to receive nuclear exports from NSG members because it is not an NPT party and does not open all its nuclear facilities to IAEA inspections. China has been asked to provide more information on the proposed deal. Did it provide any new information to the rest of the NSG at the Noordwijk meeting?

De Klerk: It provided some more specificity, yes; and without going into detail, it now said specifically that, in its view, in China’s view, these exports are part of the agreement that China had with Pakistan before [China] became a member of the NSG. The “grandfather” argument was now made explicitly.

ACT: My recollection from talking to people about it was that when China entered, there was a discussion and a fairly specific agreement as to these facilities, [saying that certain facilities] are grandfathered: there’s a list and things on this list were grandfathered; nothing beyond this list would be grandfathered; and these reactors were not on the list.[3] Is that not the case? What was the context of the discussion about the grandfathering?

De Klerk: I have no comments on whether there is, or who has seen, such a list. I haven’t.

ACT: If China and Pakistan go ahead with the deal, what are the NSG’s options?

De Klerk: We didn’t discuss options. I’m not in a position to speculate on that.

ACT: On its face, the deal would not comply with the NSG guidelines, but because the NSG is a voluntary group, there is a limit to what it can do to affect decisions of its individual members. If the deal were to go forward, how would the NSG respond, and what could it do to salvage something from it or to prevent such deals from taking place in the future?

De Klerk: The words “not comply” are yours; I haven’t said that in any way. Clearly, when a state that has ongoing nuclear cooperation agreements wants to become a member, you end up with sometimes murky situations. But if your question is whether there are lessons to be learned from this situation for the future, I think the lesson is that the more clarity you can get on what is ongoing at the time a country becomes a member, the better, because that would prevent the sort of situation we are in now with regard to China and Pakistan.

ACT: So it was an issue of clarity of what was ongoing at the time?

De Klerk: I think so, yes.

ACT: At the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in March, one of your colleagues [Henk Cor van der Kwast] listed some items on your agenda for your chairmanship.[4] One of them was outreach to nonmembers, possibly with “different types of outreach to different countries,” as he put it. Can you say what that would involve?

De Klerk: Clearly, to clarify the purpose and the structure and the history of the NSG to others and to try to convince other countries to adopt similar export policies is of great importance to us. That’s why we have this outreach program. Indeed, I was there too in March at Carnegie, and I heard my colleague mention what we had in mind. We are working on an outreach paper to be adopted by the full NSG somewhere in the coming year. There are a number of countries that we want to talk to on a regular basis. What our paper intends is to make a number of categories of states that would be good countries to talk to for different reasons—as potential suppliers, as transit countries, what have you. That’s one step. The other step is that it might be good to do outreach also to other categories of industry and maybe other organizations, civil society. Those are our plans; we’re working on that. As such, a paper has not been agreed upon, and I can’t be very specific yet on what our future outreach policy will be.

ACT: You also mentioned outreach to organizations in civil society. Could you say a little bit more about that?

De Klerk: I don’t think I should go into any detail because this might be controversial. It’s the Netherlands’ view at this point that doing outreach more broadly is useful to dispel misunderstandings, to clarify what we are, what we are not. How broad that circle will be in the future, different states will probably have different views, so I don’t know where we will draw a line in the sand in the future.

ACT: This ties into one of the other issues that your colleague mentioned, which was the effort to increase the transparency of the NSG process. Do you have specific ideas about how to adjust the group’s current policy of keeping its deliberations strictly confidential and to try to provide more information and in a more timely way about NSG discussions and decisions?

De Klerk: It’s clear there is a tension between transparency on the one hand and confidentiality on the other. We have formulated a number of guidelines about communication and stronger relationships with different stakeholders, be it media, be it civil society. This interview is part of that thinking. But how far you can go in discussing sensitive issues like the Chinese supplies and whether India should become a member remains to be seen. You can’t be too specific about debates that are still under way and are not finished yet. Within those boundaries, we will try to improve our transparency. Even before our chairmanship started, in the run-up, we organized, together with the Carnegie Endowment, a few meetings, one open for think tanks and academics in Brussels where we had some fundamental debate on key issues surrounding the NSG. I, for one, thought it was a very stimulating debate. If we could have more of such interactions, that would be good, in our view. We have not-yet-very-specific plans of doing something similar in the spring, but we need to formulate that more precisely before I can say anything about that.

ACT: You mean [interactions between] civil society on one side and governments who are part of the NSG on the other?

De Klerk: Right. Some osmosis from the inside to the outside and vice versa would be good. It might be of value for the group.

ACT: Is this at this point strictly a Dutch proposal, or is it something you’ve already discussed more broadly within the NSG and so on?

De Klerk: What has been discussed within the NSG in the last couple of years is a transparency policy. We have a number of guidelines that speak to transparency. What is still largely a Dutch matter is how we will implement that during the rest of our chairmanship.

ACT: You also mentioned media. Is there consideration of being more forthcoming? For example, the statements after the NSG meetings—sometimes there is no public statement at all and when there is, it tends to be very general. Is there some discussion of perhaps having a little more detail in the statements or making the chairman available to the press or something like that after NSG meetings or at other times? Certainly, you’re doing that now. But is that a more general approach for the future?

De Klerk: Perhaps. We all agree that transparency is something positive, but at the same time, there are all sorts of limitations that one or more participating governments don’t want to be too specific on this issue or that. While the chair can encourage [others] to make our public statements longer and more specific, how such future sessions will turn out I can’t predict.

ACT: Updating the NSG’s lists of controlled exports is another item that has been mentioned as a priority for the coming year. Why might that be necessary, and how do you plan to pursue this effort?

De Klerk: While you can say nuclear technology is a rather stable, mature technology, in some of the more specific areas, technology is changing, and it’s a constant struggle to formulate your control lists in such a way that you cover all the relevant equipment and all the relevant facilities. So what is under way is a thorough, comprehensive look at the different technology areas, which is an exercise also under Dutch chairmanship, by the way, but it’s separate from the annual chairmanship. It’s an exercise that will probably take a few years, but we have started that. The first results have been put on the table, but it’s still a work in progress.

ACT: Just to give us some context, how often does the NSG do this sort of revision? It’s been around for, as we said, about three decades. How often do you do these guidelines, and how long does it take to do each one?

De Klerk: There’s not really a regularity in these revisions. When you come to the conclusion that the formulations that we have in the control lists on the particular technology are deficient, then there is an impetus to close potential loopholes. Perhaps you can say that, on average, there are revisions every five years. But what is important is that the review that is going on now pertains both to the trigger list and the dual-use list and that it’s more comprehensive than we’ve had in quite a long time.

ACT: Is there anything else you would like to say about the developments at Noordwijk, your plans for the coming year, or anything else dealing with the NSG?

De Klerk: The main thing I would like to say is, coming back to the beginning of our conversation, that in an age of electronic traffic and the Internet, export control is a greater challenge than ever, given that we are witnessing what many call a nuclear renaissance. Whether that term is a bit too grandiose or not, it’s true that especially in Asia you see quite a take-off of nuclear energy. If you see Chinese plans for 200,000 megawatts by 2030; if you see India, 60,000 megawatts; South Korea, 43,000 megawatts—it’s an era of new expansion.

I think the NSG is as relevant as ever. The fact that our chairmanship has quite a number of areas where changes are under way, more than there have been in quite a number of years, I think that’s a reflection of the new phase that we’re entering. Clearly, when the danger is the spread of nuclear weapons, then it’s clear we have a challenge that we all should take very seriously. It’s clear that you will need to have tight export controls if you want to give nuclear power a chance without any concurrent spread of nuclear weapons capabilities.

ACT: Thank you very much for taking the time to do this.

De Klerk: My pleasure.




1. The NSG maintains two lists that are the basis for its guidelines. The first, often known as the “trigger list,” includes materials and technology designed specifically for nuclear use. The second covers dual-use goods, which are non-nuclear items with legitimate civilian applications that can also be used to develop weapons.


2. For the complete text of the revision and the rest of the guidelines, see International Atomic Energy Agency, “Communication Received From the Permanent Mission of the Netherlands Regarding Certain Member States’ Guidelines for the Export of Nuclear Material, Equipment and Technology,” INFCIRC/254/Rev.10/Part 1, July 26, 2011, www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Infcircs/2011/infcirc254r10p1.pdf. See also Daniel Horner, “NSG Revises Rules on Sensitive Exports,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2011.


3. See Daniel Horner, “China, Pakistan Set Reactor Deal,” Arms Control Today, June 2010.


4. Henk Cor van der Kwast, remarks at “The Future of the Nuclear Suppliers Group,” Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Washington, DC, March 29, 2011, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/The_Future_of_the_Nuclear_Suppliers_Group.pdf.