Can India procure Enrichment and Reprocessing (ENR) technology and goods from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)? This question is dominating the strategic debate not only in India but also across the world, as evident from commentaries and opinions expressed in the media, think tanks and the policy community ever since the June 2011 NSG plenary. In fact, this question had been cropping up periodically in the policy making community even before the NSG plenary.
The issue was somewhat complicated by the press statement issued by the NSG after the plenary meeting, which said little. Informal briefings and official statements, first from the US and then from a couple of other countries, tried to portray that there was no dissonance between India and the NSG guidelines on ENR. The media and some commentators argued that the NSG’s 2008 exemption for India did not include ENR technology. Others pointed out that the entire 2008 NSG exemption business was a farce and that in the future as well the NSG countries may impose new restrictions thus making the 2008 exception meaningless.
Later, a letter from the chairman of the NSG, dated July 12, 2011, was transmitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA published it as INFCIRC/254/Rev.10/part1 dated July 26, 2011. For India, the most crucial clause in this document was 6(a) (i), which demands that a recipient of ENR facilities, equipment and technology should be a member of the NPT and fulfil all its treaty obligations. Since India is not a member of the NPT, linking membership of the treaty to the supply of ENR items as per the NSG guidelines appears to have complicated the matter for India.
The government of India, seemingly, to allay apprehensions has been taking several measures, including the provision of briefings to the media on the issue. On August 10, 2011, the external affairs minister made a suo motu statement on ENR technology, in which he reiterated that the September 2008 India-specific exemption in the NSG included an exemption for the supply of ENR items. As mentioned earlier, some writings in India and outside, however, maintained that there was no such thing as a ‘clean exemption’ in the NSG. Which of these positions is right: the minister’s statement or the opinion doubting the NSG’s exemption of ENR supply to India?
For sure, the minister’s statement is based on facts. The India-specific exemption in the NSG is contained in the IAEA document INFCIRC/734 (Corrected), dated September 19, 2008. The statement notes:
…Participating governments may transfer trigger list items and/or related technology to India for peaceful purposes and for use in IAEA safeguarded civil nuclear facilities, provided that the transfer satisfies all other provisions of INFCIRC/254/Part 1, as revised and provided that the transfers of sensitive export remain subject to paragraphs 6 and 7 of the guidelines.
Thus, it is clear that the exemption included the supply of ENR items to safeguarded facilities for civil nuclear energy cooperation. The supply of ENR or for that matter any other NSG item for an unsafeguarded military or strategic programme was never an issue. Now comes the question: what are restrictions imposed under paragraphs 6 and 7 of the guidelines? Before the 2011 amendment, paragraph 6 of the guidelines had stated that:
Suppliers should exercise restraint in the transfer of sensitive facilities, technology and material usable for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. If enrichment or reprocessing facilities, equipment or technology are to be transferred, suppliers should encourage recipients to accept, as an alternative to national plants, supplier involvement and/or other appropriate multinational participation in resulting facilities. Suppliers should also promote international (including IAEA) activities concerned with multinational regional fuel cycle centres.
Similarly, the unamended paragraph 7 noted:
For a transfer of an enrichment facility, or technology therefor, the recipient nation should agree that neither the transferred facility, nor any facility based on such technology, will be designed or operated for the production of greater than 20% enriched uranium without the consent of the supplier nation, of which the IAEA should be advised.
In both these paragraphs, the standard language was used. There is only regulated restriction and not a ban on the export of controlled items. In fact, the 2011 amendment sought to introduce a new element into the guidelines by inserting NPT membership and obligations.
However, even the otherwise vague 2011 NSG public statement that inserted the NPT angle into the guidelines, underlined that the NSG would implement the India-specific exemptions fully. As a result, the NPT angle in the guidelines becomes irrelevant – which was quite rightly pointed out by the minister in his suo motu statement.
What will be its implications for India? India has the indigenous capability for developing ENR facilities and goods which it has demonstrated very well. But the question is: why does it want to acquire ENR? It seems that the Indian nuclear energy establishment wants to take advantage of new technological developments in the world for the generation of energy and electricity. It is for this reason that India is involving a number of countries in its nuclear energy development programme.
Will these countries supply ENR items to India? The indications are positive. Just after the plenary meeting, when unofficial news about the NPT-relating amendment was circulating, the United States made a reassuring official statement in which it promised to continue with the ‘clean’ exemptions notwithstanding the amendment of the guidelines in the 2011 plenary meeting. Later, France and Russia also made similar reassuring statements. As all the important external actors for the Indian nuclear energy programme are willing to supply ENR, we may expect new actors to do so as well.
The Indian external affairs minister ended his statement by saying that: “the international nuclear order will continue to evolve in India’s favour”. Earlier he had spoken about India actively working towards acquiring the membership of four of the multilateral export controls regimes, and rejected the idea that India would accept membership of the NPT as a Non-Nuclear Weapons State for the purpose of procuring ENR goods. It was implicit in the statement that India may opt for the NPT if it is recognised as a nuclear weapon state.
The minister may be right about the international order, the multilateral export controls regimes and the NPT, but he and his ministry may have to do more work on the NPT front. The Indian government has been making the same statement on the NPT for a long time. However, it dithers when it comes to taking it to its logical conclusion. It starts speaking the old language which is meaningless in a nuclear India and when the world is getting increasingly reconciled to the nuclear weapon status of India.
Indian diplomacy needs to develop a strategy to get the NPT amended in order to formally gain nuclear weapon status for India. This status is not for prestige but for removing the recurring irritants which pose obstacles to India’s integration with global nuclear commerce and the nonproliferation regime. A de jure nuclear weapon status would be a win-win situation for both India and the international community.