The future of the nuclear suppliers group

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
WISE Amsterdam

After the first Indian nuclear explosive test in 1974, seven nuclear supplier governments were convinced that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) alone would not halt the spread of nuclear weapons. Seven governments formed the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and over the course of more than three decades, it is described by Mark Hibbs in a new report "the world’s leading multilateral nuclear export control arrangement, establishing guidelines that govern transfers of nuclear-related materials, equipment, and technology."

To encourage the Nuclear Suppliers Group to consider issues that have a significant impact on its future credibility and effectiveness, the Carnegie Endowment held a workshop in Brussels, “The Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Future of Nuclear Trade,” from May 9 to 10, 2011. The workshop, supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, which assumed the NSG chair in June, was attended by 75 experts, including officials from 30 NSG-participating governments.

One month after the workshop, at the NSG’s 2011 plenary meeting held in the Netherlands formally assumed the chairmanship of the NSG for one year. (see for a report on the NSG plenary meeting Nuclear Monitor 729 –July 1, 2011: New NSG guidelines limit India's access to sensitive nuclear technology)

It was agreed that Carnegie would publish an open report based on the proceedings of the workshop in the interest of informing the broader policy community about the discussion held during the meeting. A compendium of suggestions and recommendations emerging from the workshop is included in the recently published  report: "The future of the Nuclear Suppliers Group" written by Mark Hibbs. The report, however, is broader in scope than the workshop, and it concerns itself with the history of the NSG from its inception as well as with events that transpired after the workshop was held.

One of the main conclusions of the workshop was that the NSG must decide how to manage its future relationship with states outside the group and how to define itself with respect to the NPT, whose 190 parties are committed to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, and promoting disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear technology. International nuclear commerce is rapidly evolving into a system of complex transactions involving destinations and actors that until now have been disconnected from the world of nuclear trade controls, be they governments that are members of budding regional customs unions or independent brokers, traders, and financiers such as those who have been affiliated with Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. As the world’s nuclear industry expands, engaging those countries outside the NSG framework will be far more critical than at any time in the NSG’s history.

India is one such country. As a state with undeclared nuclear activities outside the NPT, India was barred by the NSG and the NPT from most international nuclear commerce, but the group lifted nuclear trade sanctions against India in 2008 at the request of the United States, supported by other major nuclear exporting governments, including France and Russia. Workshop participants addressed the question of whether the India decision was a “singular exception” to principles set by the NPT parties and adopted by the NSG, as its main advocates claimed, or whether it marked a significant course correction by the NSG toward the goal of obtaining the adherence and participation of all nuclear supplier states, including those outside the NPT that enrich uranium, reprocess irradiated nuclear fuel, and have nuclear weapons. Attendees presented arguments for both cases but came to no consensus.

Now, three years after the India exception, China intends to export more power reactors to Pakistan, which is, like India, a state outside the NPT with nuclear arms. According to NSG guidelines, Pakistan would have to commit to full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards as a condition for the transaction. That will not happen, and workshop participants discussed whether China can be persuaded not to export the reactors or instead to seek a formal exception to NSG guidelines. China claims the exports are “grandfathered” by a long-standing agreement with Pakistan. Presently the NSG has not formulated a response to China’s challenge, but if Beijing does not come to some agreement with the NSG, the group’s credibility will be damaged, workshop attendees warned.

The NSG must be prepared to include new exporters, many of them developing countries previously outside the fabric of nuclear trade rule making. It will also have to address concerns that the organization is an exclusive club that undercuts states’ rights to nuclear commerce. The NSG incorporated China into the group in 2004 and should consider this experience in any future expansion. The United States has forced the pace of this discussion by advocating full NSG membership for India. Though workshop participants from India, Israel, and Pakistan presented arguments as to why these countries should be included in the arrangement, there was no consensus among the attendees that that should happen in the near future.

All of this will affect the rules by which the NSG operates. According to the report the NSG needs to consider how its voluntary participation and consensus-based decision making will fare as more states join the group. Voluntary commitments are difficult to enforce. But many workshop participants saw little upside to turning the NSG into a more formal organization. That is exactly one of the main criticisms. Basically, the NSG is a group countries selling nuclear technology, which means that the access to that technology should not be hindered too much.

The full report 'The future of the Nuclear Supplier Group' written by Mark Hibbs and published by the Carnegie Endowment can be found online, at:

Source: Media Release Carnegie Endowment, 14 December 2011
Contact: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1779 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036 United States