Nuclear Debates in Asia Digest: India Eyes Membership Debate at Nuclear Suppliers Group

Nuclear Debates in Asia Digest: India Eyes Membership Debate at Nuclear Suppliers Group

NSG LogoMembers of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) met in Vienna last week to debate the possible inclusion of India into the group. China and several European nations resisted efforts by the United States, France, Britain, and Russia to integrate Asia’s third-largest economy into the NSG, a decision that could reshape the nuclear energy and nonproliferation landscape. The debate is being closely followed within India, who has yet to formally apply but could gain considerable prestige as part of the exclusive nuclear group.

The NSG, established in 1975, is a group of 46 nations who voluntarily agree to coordinate their export controls for transfers of peaceful nuclear material and related equipment and technology to non-nuclear-weapon states. NSG members promise to not transfer these sensitive items to governments outside of the international nuclear safeguards regime.

Asia is at the center of the current rise in demand for nuclear energy around the globe. India is looking to establish itself as a major player in future nuclear energy trade. Due to U.S. and international sanctions against India stemming from its nuclear weapons program and status outside the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), India developed a largely indigenous nuclear power program. According to the World Nuclear Association, India’s nuclear energy program will have a 14.6 MWe power capacity by 2010 and plans to supply a quarter of its electrical needs from nuclear reactors by the middle of this century.

This Nuclear Debates in Asia digest outlines why membership in the NSG is so important to India and how New Delhi can benefit from a place at the NSG table.

Map showing India’s planned nuclear power plant expansion. (Credit: World Nuclear Association)

NSG membership also fits into India’s plans to engage a number of energy and export control regimes as it moves forward on its own energy and security plans. India’s indigenous nuclear energy program was designed from the early stages to take advantage of unique reactor designs and fuel sources, including fast breeder reactors and India’s vast domestic supplies of thorium (around 13 percent of total world supply). India’s Foreign Secretary, Ranjan Mathai, gave an address in 2012 where he said, “In November 2010, India expressed interest in taking forward this engagement with the international community to the next phase of seeking membership of the four export control regimes — NSG, MTCR, Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement — we are aware that there are regime specificities.”

Any country that exports nuclear items covered by NSG guidelines may apply for membership. Their application is evaluated on past observance to the guidelines, its overall proliferation record, adherence and compliance to international nonproliferation treaties and agreements, and national export controls. As NSG decisions are made by consensus, all existing members would need to approve of India’s admission to the group.

The United States has promoted India’s NSG membership as part of a longer plan to further integrate India into the global nuclear energy and nuclear nonproliferation system. Beginning in the mid-1990s, proponents of this strategy argued that assisting India with its civilian nuclear energy needs would strengthen relations between the two democracies, align India closer with U.S. nonproliferation goals without India having to formally join the NPT, and most importantly, increase India’s capacity and willingness to serve as a strategic counterbalance against a rising China.

Bush and Singh

Former U.S. President George W. Bush and India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh shake hands at Hyderabad house in New Delhi (Credit:.Shanker Chakravarty)

India’s 1998 nuclear tests momentarily paused U.S. assistance on these issues, but Washington and New Delhi signed a groundbreaking nuclear cooperation agreement in 2006. In that deal, India agreed to separate its civilian and military purpose nuclear facilities and place all of its peaceful facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. The United States would then agree to move toward full civilian nuclear cooperation with India. After contentious domestic debates within the U.S. Congress and the Indian parliament, both parties formally agreed to the deal. The IAEA Board of Governors approved a safeguards agreement with India in August 2008.

The United States then sought and secured a waiver within the NSG for U.S. nuclear trade with India, the first such waiver for a nuclear weapon power outside the NPT and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Many of the same states objecting to India membership to the NSG today also resisted this waiver request, including China, Pakistan, and Ireland. Since that waiver, India has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Canada, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Namibia.

The United States announced its support of India’s NSG membership in 2010, but has met resistance from China and other current members. China, who has moved closer to India’s longtime rival Pakistan, voiced concern that allowing India into the NSG would set an unequal and unfair precedent. India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons in 1998 and remain outside the NPT, but the United States and other NSG members – excluding China – have so far refused to negotiate similarly favorable nuclear cooperation agreements and NSG waivers with Pakistan.

The debate over India’s NSG membership is particularly interesting given the group’s origin story. After India’s 1974 “peaceful nuclear explosion,” a number of nuclear exporters realized that a civilian nuclear energy program could be used as a cover for more illicit nuclear activities, including a weaponization program. Several nations participating in another informal export controls group called the Zangger Committee established the NSG, recruited new members such as France, and adopted guidelines on the transfer of peaceful nuclear materials, equipment, and technology. The irony of the NSG possibly coming full circle on India has not be lost on Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who said some “worried that India will use its voice to reverse the NSG’s gears and loosen export controls, since India has not demonstrated a firm historical commitment” to its mission.”

A Indian soldier stands guard near Kudankulam Atomic Power Project (Credit: AP)

A Indian soldier stands guard near Kudankulam Atomic Power Project (Credit: AP)

A number of experts in the in nonproliferation community have spoken out against the waiver and the U.S.-India nuclear deal. Pierre Goldschmidt, another scholar affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment, believes that the “India exemption” undermined the “credibility of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.” Goldschmidt recommends that NSG members use India’s possible application to the group as an opportunity to “repair” some of this damage to the NPT regime by establishing a stricter standard set of 14 membership criteria for non-NPT States looking to join the cartel. This would include, among other things:

  • willingness to comply with several articles of the NPT
  • allow any new nuclear facilities to be placed under IAEA safeguards
  • commit to several specific nonproliferation agreements, such as an Additional Protocol, the CTBT, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, and future negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty

Not every scholar shares a pessimistic outlook on possible NSG membership for India. RPI Nuclear Debates in Asia project co-director Deepa Ollapally believes that the “argument that inducting India into the NSG as a member would seriously damage the NPT regime is rather disingenuous.” She argues that India’s “exceptionally good record on nuclear trade,” especially relative to Pakistan, indicates that China’s resistance to New Delhi’s NSG membership is more likely “motivated by political competition with India.” Furthermore, she writes that:

“Given that India is now in a “half-way house” in a clearly imperfect NPT regime, the question that should be debated is whether it does more damage to the goals of nonproliferation to have India inside or outside the NSG. The answer to that question is not difficult.”

The next NSG meeting will be held this June in Prague, Czech Republic. Be sure to follow the Rising Power Initiative’s Nuclear Debates in Asia project and the RPI blog as events develop for more news and analysis.