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New NSG guidelines limit India's access to sensitive nuclear technology

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
LAKA Foundation

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has decided to tighten the norms of enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technology exports. The revised rules, under discussion for years, have been adopted at a June 23-24 Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting in the Dutch town of Noordwijk. In fact, this means a partial reversal of the exemption for India to have access to nuclear equipment and technology, although some analysts are unsure about the wording in the final statement.

The U.S. Bush administration helped India (which never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty) to become eligible for imports of nuclear technology, including sensitive enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) equipment and technology, in September 2008. This was adopted by NSG and an exemption from the existing NSG rules that banned nuclear trade with countries that are not signatories of the NPT. The landmark civilian nuclear cooperation agreement ended India's atomic isolation following its 1974 nuclear test and could mean billions of dollars in business for US corporations, as well as for reactor-supplying firms from France and Russia. But now enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technology, however, are no longer part of the deal. But still there seems to be a snag somewhere in the NSG decision.

The NSG was just set up after India's first nuclear weapons explosion in 1974 “to ensure that nuclear trade for peaceful purposes does not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”. But in September 2008 it did the very opposite by agreeing to the exceptional waiver for India as part of New Delhi's controversial Indo-U.S. nuclear cooperation deal. However, in the build-up of this agreement there was a great deal of resistance to the waiver within the NSG. India’s non-NPT status stuck in many throats during the negotiations leading up to the 2008 waiver by the NSG allowing India to engage in nuclear commerce. NSG failed to produce a consensus, necessary for any decision to go through. Six “like-minded” countries - Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland - which argued that India must accept three conditions in order to resume nuclear trade, led the resistance. These included a periodic review of compliance with India's nonproliferation pledges, exclusion from trade of sensitive technologies such as uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, and cessation of nuclear commerce in case India tests. In the event, India only accepted the first condition and doggedly refused to go beyond reiterating its unilateral moratorium on testing. But the NSG agreed.

At the Noordwijk meeting the exemption has been partly reversed under the new NSG rules. There aren't any restrictions to trade in reactors or nuclear fuel, but it limits India's access to sensitive enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) equipment and technology which are vulnerable for proliferation. But India's Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has rejected as untrue, reports that the clean waiver India got from the NSG for ENR equipment and technology has ended because of an NSG ban for non-NPT countries. Speaking to NDTV, an Indian TV channel, Mukherjee said America must honor its commitments to India. He said the US is committed to the civilian nuclear cooperation deal with India and the clean waiver given by the NSG. He said he reminded the US administration that the clean waiver to India still stands according to the deal signed by both countries. 

Reprocessing equipment and technology comes into play in the treatment of spent fuel from a nuclear reactor, which can be reprocessed and used in a fast-breeder reactor. In 1985, India became the sixth nation to possess fast-breeder technology. The former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission Anil Kakodkar commented on the NSG decision: “In the bilateral 2008 Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, there was some forward looking language. The understanding was that even if it is not possible now, it would be made possible in the future. The new NSG guidelines are completely contrary to that spirit.” […] “It's a big departure, or betrayal of the exemption NSG had granted India.” According to Kakodkar the ENR technology is key to the enhancement of the power capacity using fast breeder reactors. India is among a handful of nations to have its own ENR technology, but the plan was to use international ENR technology in the nuclear program that was born out of the international cooperation, he said. “India's very large domestic program or the nuclear fuel cycle will not be affected in any way as far as I understand,” he added.

India's main opposition party BJP asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to give clarifications on the recent decision made by NSG. Spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy told media the reports emanating from The Netherlands had confirmed the worst fears expressed by BJP in parliament when it ratified the Indo-US Nuclear Treaty signed between Dr Singh and U.S. President George Bush. "The exemption India got is being sought to be nullified and we got nothing in return for the deal it signed with U.S. and India would be treated on par with countries like Pakistan, North Korea and Israel who too have not signed the NPT", he said. “Our apprehensions have become true with the NSG resolving to strengthen its guidelines on transfer of sensitive ENR technologies after considering all aspects of the implementation of the 2008 Statement on Civil Nuclear Cooperation with India.”

NSG members such as the US, Russia, Germany and the Netherlands support India to join the NSG., although it did not sign the NPT. Just before the NSG Noordwijk meeting the Obama administration lauded the NSG move to restrict trade enrichment and reprocessing systems even as it reaffirmed its support of civilian atomic trade with India. Former Indian envoy M.K. Bhadrakumar said, “There is a clear double standard here on the part of the U.S..” Also France and Russia, who each have signed nuclear agreements with India and have also repeatedly voiced their openness to selling enrichment and reprocessing technology to India, have accepted the new NSG rules.

Ambiguous NSG declaration
There is some wording in the Public Statement of the Noordwijk meeting that shows the ambiguous NSG position and makes it difficult to analyze the exact outcome.

- the NSG therefore agreed to strengthen its guidelines on the transfer of sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technologies […] and

- continued to consider all aspects of the implementation of the 2008 Statement on Civil Nuclear Cooperation with India and discussed the NSG relationship with India.

How do these accounts relate to each other? Proliferation expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace firmly believes that the outcome is a strengthening of the guidelines. “The new (NSG) guidelines include language saying transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technologies should be limited to NPT states and India doesn't qualify.” [..] “India has been trying to get that particular item out of the new guidelines and they failed,” Hibbs said. “It limits their access to sensitive technology.”

The NSG - which consists of 46 nations, including the five recognized nuclear weapons states that are not subjected to the IAEA safeguards regime - tries to ensure that nuclear exports are not diverted for military purposes. This would bar all NPT outsiders - India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea - from such items, which can have both civilian and military applications. Even though they are NPT signatories, the new guidelines would also apply to Iran and Syria as they are being probed by the IAEA over suspicions that they have channeled nuclear activities towards military ends.

Sources: Nuclear Monitor 677, 25 September 2008; NSG Public Statement, 24 June 2011 on; The Economic Times, 29 June 2011; Reuters, 28 June 2011; NTI, 28 June 2011
Contact: Laka Foundation, Ketelhuisplein 43, 1054 RD Amsterdam, The Netherlands.