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Mayor of Hiroshima
June 2, 2022
Accord on New Rules Eludes Nuclear Suppliers
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Daniel Horner

Nuclear supplier countries last month ended their annual plenary meeting without agreeing on new rules for exports related to uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing.

In a June 12 statement issued at the close of a meeting in Budapest, the 46-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) said its members had "agreed to continue to work to strengthen" the group's guidelines in that area. Equipment and technology related to enrichment and reprocessing are considered to be particularly sensitive types of nuclear exports because those processes can produce material that is usable in a nuclear weapon.

The current NSG guidelines contain only a general instruction to exercise "restraint" in sensitive exports. The suppliers have been working for years to adopt a more rigorous standard. They have agreed to use a so-called criteria-based approach, under which recipients of sensitive exports would have to meet a list of preset requirements. However, the NSG members have not been able to agree on the specific list of criteria.

At the end of last year, the suppliers appeared to be closing in on an agreement, in large part because the United States and Canada had reached a compromise on rules for enrichment-related exports. (See ACT, December 2008.) Canada's objections to more stringent rules had been one of the main obstacles to an accord.

But since then, current and former diplomats said, other countries have raised objections to various parts of the proposal. Two sources mentioned Turkey as a country voicing objections. Other countries previously mentioned as having concerns include Brazil, South Africa, and South Korea.

According to sources familiar with the proposal, the criteria fall into two groups, "objective" and "subjective." The objective criteria would cover issues such as whether the country is a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and has agreed to an additional protocol to its International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards agreement. Such protocols give the agency inspectors more latitude than they have under standard safeguards agreements.

Subjective criteria would require potential exporters to consider issues such as whether the export would undermine regional stability and if the recipient country was in a volatile region. Turkey is concerned that its access to sensitive exports could be restricted if it were considered part of the Middle East, the diplomatic sources said.

According to a former U.S. diplomat, some European countries expressed concern that the arrangement would impose additional restrictions on their access to enrichment technology if they one day joined Urenco, the British-Dutch-German enrichment consortium.

U.S. Sees Progress

The NSG "made progress" in Budapest toward reaching agreement on new rules for enrichment and reprocessing exports, an official from the U.S. Department of State said in a June 25 e-mail. The NSG "agreed that efforts to reach consensus should continue over the summer and prior to the next regular meeting of the NSG Consultative Group this fall," the official said. According to the NSG's Web site, the consultative group is the NSG's "standing intersessional working body." The consultative group typically meets several times a year and, like the NSG as a whole, makes decisions by consensus.

As it generally does, the consultative group met during the days just before the plenary in Budapest. There was no consensus on the export criteria, a diplomat from a key NSG country said. Sometimes, if there is only one country standing in the way of consensus, an issue will be forwarded to the plenary, where higher-level officials might be able to break the deadlock, he said. But pushing an issue to the plenary when there is broader disagreement could "ruin it," he said.

He said some of his fellow diplomats believed the June meeting was "a decisive moment" and that the failure to reach an agreement there could be a "bad indicator."

According to the former U.S. diplomat, many NSG countries want to resolve the issue and put it behind them. But when asked if he thought they were near agreement, he replied, "I wouldn't say that."

Last September, during final negotiations between the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration over the U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promised Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) that the United States would press for an agreement on new NSG guidelines for enrichment and reprocessing. (See ACT, October 2008.)

In a Sept. 26 statement, Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Rice had pledged that the "highest priority" of the United States at a November 2008 NSG meeting would be to reach an agreement to ban enrichment and reprocessing exports to countries that are not parties to the NPT. India is not an NPT party.

In the June 25 e-mail, the State Department official said, "The United States continues to believe that strengthening the NSG Guidelines as they apply to transfers of sensitive enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technologies is a major priority."