Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) & Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – India’s Membership

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Since conducting its second nuclear tests in 1998, India had adhered to a self-imposed commitment to “No First Use” of nuclear weapons on another country. However, on August 16th, 2019, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had hinted that in future India’s “no first use” policy “depends on circumstances”. Following this episode, the Defence Minister had effectively reduced the already bleak chances of India becoming a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. However, in the current situation, it matters very little for India as it already has the necessary benefits it needs to expand and operate its nuclear programme.

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This topic of “Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) & Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – India’s Membership” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

What is NSG?

  • Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is a group of nuclear supplier countries that aims to prevent nuclear proliferation by controlling the export of materials, equipment and technologies that can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.
  • Established in 1975, it consists of 48 member states that have voluntarily agreed to coordinate their export controls to non-nuclear weapon states.
  • The NSG governs the transfers of civilian nuclear material and nuclear-related equipment and technology.
  • The aim is to prevent nuclear exports for commercial and peaceful purposes from being used to make nuclear weapons.
  • To ensure that their nuclear exports are not used for making nuclear weapons, the NSG members are expected to forgo nuclear trade with governments that are not subjecting themselves to confidence-building international measures and inspections.
  • As a part of the organisation, the member nations periodically review the NSG Guidelines to add new items that pose a risk of proliferation or to eliminate goods that no longer require special trade control.
  • An annual plenary, which is chaired on a rotating basis among the members, is held to discuss the regime’s operation, including possible changes to Guidelines.
  • All NSG decisions are made by consensus.
  • Members also participate in regular meetings of two separate standing bodies, the Dual-Use Consultations and the Joint Information Commission. These meetings review Part II of the Guidelines and exchange relevant information.

How did NSG come to be?

  • The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty granted non-nuclear weapon states access to nuclear materials and technology for peaceful purposes only.
  • After realising that peaceful nuclear programmes could be turned into weapon programmes, several NPT nuclear supplier states sought to determine the conditions for sharing specific equipment and materials with non-nuclear weapon states.
  • In the year 1971, these supplier states had set up the Zangger Committee with an aim to not supply nuclear material and equipment to non-nuclear weapons states outside NPT unless International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards were in place.
  • In 1974, this committee had come up with a Trigger List that consisted of a list of items that could be transferred to non-nuclear weapon states outside NPT only on condition of certain safeguards and assurances.
  • India’s explosion of a nuclear device in 1974 reiterated that nuclear material and technologies for peaceful purposes could be diverted to build nuclear weapons.
  • This incident led to several Zangger Committee members, along with France, who was not a member of NPT at the time, to establish NSG to further regulate nuclear-related exports.
  • The Nuclear Suppliers Group also added supplemental technologies to the original Zangger Committee’s Trigger List.
  • Additionally, NSG members agreed to apply their trade restrictions to all states, not just non-members of the NPT.

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What are the NSG guidelines?

Nuclear Suppliers Group has two sets of Guidelines listing the specific nuclear materials, equipment and technologies that are subjected to export control.

Part I:

  • Part I lists materials and technology designed specifically for nuclear use.
  • These include fissile materials, nuclear reactors and equipment and reprocessing and enrichment equipment.
  • This list was first published in 1978 in response to India’s 1974 diversion of nuclear imports for supposedly peaceful purposes to conduct a nuclear explosion.
  • To be eligible for importing Part I items from an NSG member, the country must have ample IAEA safeguards covering all nuclear facilities and activities.

Part II:          

  • This list identifies dual-use goods including non-nuclear items with civilian uses that can be used for developing nuclear weapons.
  • Machine tools and lasers are two types of dual-use goods.
  • This list was adopted in 1992 after discovering how close Iraq came to developing a nuclear weapon.
  • The items in the Part II list require the IAEA safeguard only for specific nuclear activity or facility designated for the import.

At a meeting conducted in May 2004, NSG members decided to authorise members to block any export that is suspected to be destined for a nuclear weapons programme. These states are supposed to report their export denials to each other so that the potential proliferators cannot approach other suppliers with the same request and receive a different response.

Why is India not part of NSG?

  • India has not been admitted into the NSG because:
  • It is not a party of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The current NSG guidelines state that a non-NPT state cannot become a member of the NSG.
  • China opposes Indian membership since 2015, insisting that the NSG membership for non-NPT parties should be considered on a non-discriminatory basis, which means not on cases by case basis.
  • Pakistan’s continuous lobbying against India’s NSG membership.

What is NPT?

  • The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is an international treaty that aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology.
  • Entered into force in 1970, this treaty also aims to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear technology and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament.
  • The UN member states that have never accepted the NPT are India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan.
  • North Korea, though acceded in 1985, withdrew from the NPT after the detonation of nuclear devices in violation of the core obligations.

Why India did not sign NPT?

  • India refused to sign NPT as:
  • The treaty defines nuclear weapon states are those countries that have built and tested a nuclear explosive device before 1st January 1967. These include the USA, Russia, UK, France and China, while not including India.
  • This treaty does not fix a specific deadline for disarmament.
  • NPT is considered to be unfair as nuclear-weapon states are not obligated to give up their nuclear weapons while the non-nuclear weapon states are banned from having the same.

What was the progress made in increasing the possibility of India becoming a member of NSG?

  • India’s first nuclear weapon test Pokhran-I (Smiling Buddha) was conducted in 1974.
  • In the year 1998, India conducted its second nuclear test (Pokhran-II).
  • Later, India had voluntarily suspended further nuclear testing and had taken measures to ensure strong nuclear export control.
  • Yet, India faced new sanctions from western countries, including the United States.
  • NSG regime is voluntary. Therefore, the members may ultimately make a political calculation to proceed with a transfer that can violate the guidelines.
  • Thus, Russia had exported nuclear fuel to India in January 2001 for two US-supplied nuclear reactors located in Tarapur.
  • Almost all NSG member nations believed that these exports violated the guidelines.
  • This led to Russia suspending fuel supply to the Indian reactors in 2004.
  • Later, the US, France and Russia sought to export nuclear equipment to India, insisting that a unique exception should be made for India without any reference to conditions or criteria.
  • In September 2008, the US applied diplomatic pressure on several states that had raised reservations or objections to make an exception for India. This led to NSG granting exception based on consensus, resulting in India able to import NSG-listed items from the member nations.
  • In the same year, India and the US agreed on a civil nuclear deal. This was necessary for the US under Section 123 of its Atomic Energy Act, 1954 (123 Agreement).
  • As per the 123 Agreement, India signed a civil-military separation plan and India-IAEA safeguard agreement.
  • In 2010, the US announced its support for India’s participation in the NSG, the Wassenaar Arrangement, the Australia Group, and the Missile Technology Control Regime in a phased manner.
  • India had formally pledged that it would not share sensitive nuclear technology or material with other countries and would uphold its voluntary moratorium on testing nuclear weapons.
  • The waiver allowed India to be eligible to receive advanced nuclear technologies that could be used to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium.
  • In 2016, India applied for NSG membership. Pakistan and Nambia followed the suite.
  • The majority of the member countries support India’s bid to become an NSG member.
  • The member countries that oppose India’s NSG membership are China, New Zealand, Ireland and Australia.

What does India gain from becoming a member of NSG?

If India becomes a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group:

  • India can contribute to the non-proliferation objectives
  • It will also play a crucial role in the rulemaking process for nuclear commerce
  • It will be able to expand its nuclear program
  • It will be able to increase its access to nuclear material and equipment for the foreign sources
  • It will reduce the risk faced by the foreign nuclear-industry companies that are doing business with India
  • It can build a more advanced version of its fast breeder reactors.
  • It will be able to supply the advanced nuclear technologies to countries that do not have nuclear programmes, leading to improvement in the economic growth and development through the “Make in India”
  • It can achieve its strategic interests.

Why doesn’t India need NSG membership?

  • Due to China’s hard stance, India getting membership in the NSG seems unlikely to happen in the near future.
  • However, India not getting NSG membership doesn’t mean anything for its nuclear programme.
  • It currently has access to nuclear technology because of the waiver granted in 2008.
  • Furthermore, no foreign nuclear reactor supplier is waiting for India to get NSG membership.
  • Challenges that hamper the progress of foreign companies selling their high-tech reactors like nuclear liability issue, local opposition, pricing, etc., do not include India not being a member of NSG.
  • It is found that energy from India-built nuclear plants is much cheaper than that of foreign reactors. The foreign reactors also have the issue of liability risk.
  • India not being a member of NSG does not even hamper its uranium supply as it had signed agreements with Canada, Australia and other countries for the same.
  • As a consequence, the NSG membership also does not hinder India’s ongoing nuclear projects in any way.
  • Additionally, the membership would not bring in its wake a flood of technological benefits as believed by many.

What can be the way forward?

  • Though NSG membership does not necessarily provide material benefits for India, it does assert its rights as a nuclear weapon state and allows it to be a part of the rulemaking.
  • Besides this, it would allow India to expose Pakistan’s appalling proliferation record.
  • It is observed that if India gets the membership, it would forever block Pakistan’s NSG membership.
  • If India doesn’t get the membership, it can still use the situation to keep the spotlight on Pakistan and China. In the unlikely event of India getting the membership, it will use its veto to hamper Pakistan. Either way, this is a win-win situation for India.
  • India cannot use its ties with the US to push for the membership as the current Trump administration is unlikely to support India as its current policy is more focused on its national interests.
  • Even if India gets the USA’s support, it may mean that the former is beholden to the US’ interests.
  • If NSG membership is seen as a priority issue, then it is important to involve the United States and its allies through diplomatic means, by displaying investment potential in India’s nuclear sector.
  • The government must also take additional steps to reassure those nations that are opposing India’s membership by furthering the separation of civil and military facilities.


India becoming a member of NSG may not be important from a material perspective. However, if it does become a member, it would be a strategic achievement for the government and the country would go a step further to becoming a superpower.

Practice question for mains:

What does it mean for India to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group? (250 words)

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