World Nuclear Trade Group Agrees to Restrict Sales to India

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008

A 45-nation group that governs trade in nuclear equipment and materials privately agreed last weekend that none of its members plans to sell sensitive technologies to India, according to sources familiar with the discussion. The agreement undercuts one of the Indian government's key rationales for seeking a civilian nuclear deal with the United States -- that it would open the door for "full civil nuclear cooperation" with the rest of the world.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group's previously undisclosed understanding helped persuade several skeptical member states to support a waiver authorizing nuclear trade with India, the sources said. Winning the NSG waiver was necessary before the Bush administration could submit the landmark U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement to Congress. President Bush transmitted the agreement to Congress late Tuesday night, and administration officials are pressing for action before Congress adjourns later this month.

India has been barred from the worldwide nuclear market since it diverted fuel from civilian reactors to conduct a nuclear test in 1974, leaving it without advanced uranium-enrichment and plutonium-reprocessing technology that is superior to India's homegrown industry. In 2005, the Bush administration proposed freeing India from those constraints through a bilateral agreement, as a way of forging closer ties between the two nations.

The NSG separately is nearing consensus on a total ban on sensitive sales to countries such as India that have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- a move that would put such trade even further out of New Delhi's reach. The NSG discussion has received little public attention, but it was another factor in persuading countries such as Ireland, New Zealand and Austria to end their effort to write such trade restrictions into the waiver for India.

"In the discussions about how to handle enrichment and reprocessing, it was made clear that nobody had any plans to transfer such technologies to India in the foreseeable future," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was describing private diplomatic exchanges. While such statements were not binding, he said, the NSG countries recognized that they were planning to "tighten up" the rules on such sales in the near future, allowing them to achieve the same restrictions on India later without causing a diplomatic rupture now.

The current NSG guidelines call for members "to exercise restraint in the transfer of sensitive facilities, technology and material usable for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices." Several member countries, such as Canada and Argentina, are seeking language that would permit them to develop and sell their own nuclear fuel technology, but all members appear to agree that countries that have not signed the treaty should be banned from such trade.

The NSG waiver for India has generated new momentum for the U.S.-India nuclear deal. Administration officials are asking Congress to sidestep a legal requirement to wait at least 30 days before voting to grant final approval, arguing that a failure to vote this month would put U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage.

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