India’s NSG membership questions relationship between the NSG and the NPT

The talk on India’s participation at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has initiated a discourse on the future of the Group, with particular reference to the Group’s relationship with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Those opposing India’s entry to the global nuclear control regime argue that letting India join the NSG would mean a decoupling of the NPT and the NSG membership. It is also said that by including a non-NPT state, the NSG would undermine the legitimacy of the NPT. These arguments essentially stem from the belief that the NSG was established to support and complement the NPT in its goal of nuclear non-proliferation.

India, on this front, is not considered by some nations and global nuclear experts as like-minded as it continues to remain outside the NPT. There are two important factors, however, which require careful examination before any judgement is made on either the like-mindedness of India or India’s participation at the NSG. The first aspect to be examined is that of a direct proportionality which is assumed to exist between NPT-membership and like-mindedness of a country on nuclear non-proliferation. The second factor which needs to be studied is the relationship between the NSG and the NPT memberships.

The necessity of like-mindedness is understandably critical considering that the NSG functions on consensus and including countries which do not adhere to the common principles and norms of non-proliferation could diminish the efficiency of the Group significantly. But there appears to be an assumption made in this argument (against India’s participation) that NPT-membership and like-mindedness on nuclear non-proliferation are directly proportional to each other. History, however, proves that the NSG has, in fact, faced situations when some of its participating governments (PGs), that were also party to the NPT, did not show the like-mindedness which is expected to be demonstrated. For instance, for over 13 years after the NSG meeting of 1977 in London, the NSG PGs did not meet to discuss the proposal of creating the requirement of full-scope safeguards at the recipient state a condition for export of nuclear materials, equipments and technologies that were covered in the NSG’s trigger list. Though the Guidelines as established in 1977 were not violated by any of its PGs and the Group also expanded with 12 new countries joining the Group in that period, due to commercial interests of some of the PGs, as argued by Ambassador Tadeusz Strulak, Chairman of the NSG in 1992, the PGs did not meet. This absence of like-mindedness also resulted in the absence of expansion and upgradation of the NSG trigger list (of sensitive nuclear and related materials, equipments and technologies) which allowed some NPT nations, in particular Iraq, to acquire dual-use equipments to run a clandestine nuclear programme. It was only at the end of the Gulf War, that the NSG PGs agreed to meet and discuss the expansion of the trigger list to include nuclear related dual-use items.

Another and a more recent example is that of China and its export of two additional nuclear reactors to Pakistan at Chashma-3 and -4. China claimed that the export of the reactors is grandfathered by an agreement made between China and Pakistan in the early 1990s, much before 2004 when China joined the Group. But the fact remains that China did not disclose its plans of exporting new reactors to the NSG PGs in 2004 which it was required to notify. On the contrary, it had assured the NSG that it will not export any other reactors than Chashma -1 and -2. China’s decision to export reactors, without acquiring formal exemption for Pakistan is a clear violation of the NSG Guidelines and it threatens the credibility and the legitimacy of the Group.

These two examples illustrate the argument that NPT membership does not necessarily reflect the like-mindedness of a country on nuclear non-proliferation. The cases of Iraq (in the early 1990s), Iran and North Korea further consolidate the validity of this argument. While being signatories to the NPT, they have either run clandestine nuclear programme or have left the Treaty and developed and tested weaponised nuclear devices. Though the reasons could vary, such instances showcase that NPT membership alone cannot determine the path a nation takes in so far as nuclear proliferation is concerned.

Meanwhile, examination of the NSG’s history actually reveals that the Group, in the past, has gone beyond the NPT by including nations which were not signatories to the latter. France, for instance, joined the NPT in 1992, but it has been at the NSG since 1977. In 1974, SGN, a French company, had signed a contract with the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) to construct a reprocessing facility which could have enabled Pakistan in producing between 100 kg and 200 kg of weapons-grade plutonium. However, soon after joining the NSG, France terminated the contract with the PAEC and also abandoned its other plans of nuclear and related exports to countries who were then seeking latent nuclear capabilities.

NSG’s relationship with NPT is critical as the former’s decision to include states that are not like-minded would not just damage its own efficiency but could also jeopardise the legitimacy of the latter. Yet, considering that NPT-membership has failed to serve as an accurate indicator of the like-mindedness of a nation on nuclear non-proliferation, the NSG would benefit by broadening its understanding of like-mindedness on nuclear non-proliferation and going beyond the NPT to include nations that can contribute to the true spirit of non-proliferation. If NSG includes a non-NPT signatory in the near future, it will definitely not be the first time.


Image: Joe Klamar-AFP, Getty

Posted in , India, NSG, Nuclear, Policy

Arka Biswas

Arka Biswas

Arka Biswas is a Junior Fellow at the Strategic Studies Programme of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Physics Graduate and has a Masters in International Relations from the University of Bristol. His dissertation was a critique of the Global Zero campaign. His research interests include nuclear security, global nuclear doctrines, nuclear deterrence, nuclear non-proliferation regimes, Iranian nuclear programme, and tactical nuclear weapons in South Asia.

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5 thoughts on “India’s NSG membership questions relationship between the NSG and the NPT

  1. @author…the very establishment of NSG was actually occurred in the backdrop of India’s proliferation activities where it converted the Canadian supplied fuel for weapons purposes.
    NSG is the further extension of NPT, how it can be possible for a state to join NSG without adhering it to NPT, the main pillar of the non proliferation regime. India for making its nuclear hunger and lust satisfied seeking for NSG membership where it can easily convert the fuel supplied for peaceful purposes in to weapons program. Secondly it is also seen that the very nuclear cooperation and uranium deals are still taking place on part of India without being part to NSG….and super powers as usual where their interests are secured close their eyed did the same way…

  2. Chinese sale of power reactors to Pakistan for the Chashma Nuclear Power Complex is based on the Sept. 1986 civil nuclear deal that provides for a comprehensive civil nuclear cooperation framework under IAEA safeguards. All Chinese sales of power reactors to Pakistan are under safeguards and are governed by the 1986 agreement which was before China joined the NPT (1992) and the NSG (2004).

    The commercial-scale French reprocessing plant to be built at Chashma was never designed or intended to separate weapon-grade plutonium as its sale was approved by the IAEA Board of Governors in 1976 but the contract was unilaterally cancelled in 1978. It was to be under the most strict IAEA safeguards even if the agreement had been completed in letter and spirit. Pakistan did not need such a large capacity reprocessing plant for its weapons program. For that, PAEC developed a much smaller facility (New Laboratories) outside safeguards which was launched before the Chashma reprocessing plant contract with France and completed by 1981.

    The Chashma reprocessing plant (as per the original trilateral Franco-Pakistan-IAEA agreement) was intended to reprocess spent fuel from power (light-water) reactors (that were to be set up through international cooperation and under IAEA safeguards under a long-term nuclear power plan endorsed by the IAEA in 1973. This plan along with a potential sale of a 600 MWe power reactor under safeguards from France, was stymied by India’s PNE and the formation of the NSG) and the Chashma reprocessing plant itself fell victim to US nonproliferation efforts.

    The Chashma Power Complex was supposed to house six Light Water Reactors and where the commercial-scale Chashma reprocessing plant was meant to deal with their spent fuel. Since the late 1980s, China has supplied four 300 MW power reactors under safeguards at the same site under the 1986 long-term civil nuclear cooperation agreement between PAEC and CNNC.

    The respective grades of plutonium (reactor or weapons) is not determined by the reprocessing facility but by the reactor type. Power reactors typically run on much higher fuel burn-up (33000 MWd/t) which results in the production of large quantities of reactor and fuel-grade plutonium in the spent fuel. Weapons-grade plutonium production is carried out in dedicated production reactors (such as the heavy water moderated and natural uranium fueled) reactors such as the 40 MWt CIRUS and 100 MWt Dhruva in India and 50 MWt I, II, III & IV Khushab in Pakistan which (based on the CANDU-NRX type designs) are typically run on much lower burn-up (500-1200 MWd/t) resulting in the production of large amounts of weapons-grade plutonium. Additionally, power reactors (LWR) use LEU oxide fuel while production reactors use Nat-U metal fuel.

    Using power reactors to produce weapon-grade plutonium is theoretically possible but practically very difficult and economically disastrous as the relative size of power reactors (300-1000 MWe) compared to production reactors (40-100 MWt) would result in an exponentially high fuel requirement which would be impossible to meet through imported fuel. Producing domestic LEU fuel (required in hundreds of tonnes) for power reactors of the size of 300-1000 MWe would again need very large (commercial-scale) enrichment facilities which are only available with the NSG countries.

    Finally, using safeguarded and/or civilian research or power reactors or reprocessing plants for weapons purposes has never been Pakistan’s policy or practice and the country has been steadfast in the implementation of all its international commitments and safeguards agreements for its civilian nuclear facilities.

  3. America will never find it straightforward to deal with India, since large parts of the India political establishment deeply distrusts America and, notwithstanding China’s regional ascendancy, don’t want to give the US any more leverage over India foreign policy than necessary. The basis for a wider strategic Indo-US pact is not as strong as it might seem and as India’s politics continues to regionalize and factionalize, the Indo-US relationship may get harder to manage still.

  4. @ Roona : The argument that India’s PNE led to the establishment of the NSG requires some careful examination. It is forgotten that India had sought nuclear cover in the early 1960s. But super-powers turned down the request and India was left alone to manage its security concerns.
    Secondly, about NPT being the main pillar of nuclear non-proliferation. That is precisely been mentioned in the article that the NPT has done well to curb proliferation of nuclear weapons. Yet it does not indicate or assure that a country which is party to the Treaty as a NNWS will not run either a clandestine nuclear programme or leave the Treaty and develop nuclear weapons. You may like to read for more on the relationship between the NSG and NPT.
    Thirdly, India does not need NSG membership to acquire materials for the production of nuclear weapons. It has sufficient stockpile of spent fuel which can be reprocessed into weapons-grade material. So there is a need to check your remark on India seeking to satisfy its lust and hunger by joining the NSG.
    Fourth, all the deals are taking place after India received the waiver from the NSG, unlike in the cases of some other nation. Yes you may argue that the waiver was pushed through by the US due to their geo-political interest. The funny part is India’s membership is backed by both the US and Russia. Considering their equations, would you still call it the geopolitical interest of a few? And if the US and Russia, among all other major powers except for China, can converge on this issue, even if it is for their perceived interests, despite their differences, then I must say, we have a strong case here.

  5. @Mansoor : Thank you for sharing so much information. I am glad to hear that it has never been Pakistan’s policy to use unsafeguarded civilian reactor to produce materials for nuclear weapons. Ambassador Strulak, NSG Chair for 1992, Mycle Schneider, a french analyst and a couple of other people, who do not particularly have anything against Pakistan and who do not belong to India, seem to have argued otherwise, specifically on the SGN contract.
    I completely agree that the reactors being set up at Chashma are under IAEA safeguards and cannot deny that they form a part of the contract signed with China much before China joined the NSG, due to lack of evidence. But the point is, firstly China did not notify the plans of sale of reactors other than Chashma-1 and -2, which it was required to in 2004 when it joined the NSG. It had, in fact, mentioned that it will not sell any additional reactors. It did not mention anything about the additional sales which you point out were a part of a contract signed in 1986. To add to that, China has refused to show any documented evidence of the same. In case you have it, do share. Secondly, even if these reactors are under IAEA safeguards, sale of the additional reactors is a clear violation of the NSG guideline which requires the recipient state keep all its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards, unless it has officially received a waiver from that condition. China did not seek a waiver for Pakistan and there has been no separation of the civilian and weapons nuclear program. And that technically remains a violation of the NSG Guideline and puts NSG’s credibility at risk.

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