Chance of breakthrough in Pakistan’s entry into Nuclear Suppliers Group remains remote

Chance of breakthrough in Pakistan’s entry into Nuclear Suppliers Group remains remote


Nuclear energy is an integral part of Pakistan’s energy mix because it is highly cost competitive and environmental friendly. Islamabad has announced an ambitious nuclear energy program that aims to increase generation capacity to 40,000 megawatts under its Nuclear Energy Vision 2050. Accomplishing this seems like it will be difficult, however, because nuclear-supplier countries, with the exception of China, are reluctant to supply nuclear material for the construction of nuclear power plants in Pakistan.

Islamabad has been lobbying to muster the support of Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) members for its membership application to the organization since May 2016. During the upcoming 28th Plenary Meeting of NSG, it will again make its case for joining the group on solid grounds such as: a trained workforce; technical experience; appropriate infrastructure; the ability to supply NSG-controlled items, goods and services for a full range of nuclear applications for peaceful uses; and a well-established commitment to nuclear safety.

From the beginning, nuclear entrepreneurs have been extolling the advantages of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, including the generation of electricity, the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and other diseases, and to increase agricultural productivity. Though peaceful uses have been powering people’s lives for years, its dual-use nature — the potential for use in weapons — restricts the free trade of materials for constructing nuclear power plants and use in other fields.

The word “nuclear” can trigger fear because nonproliferationists believe that more nuclear reactors for generating electricity in more countries increase the vulnerabilities associated with nuclear waste, the risk of accidents and, above all, the chance of weapons proliferation.

Nuclear waste remains radioactive and is hazardous to health for thousands of years. In case of an accident, large amounts of radioactive material can be released into the environment, posing a danger to human beings and animal and plant life.

The main fear, however, is the threat of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. A nuclear power plant uses a light water reactor, and spent fuel can be reprocessed to produce the bomb-grade plutonium-239 isotope. Similarly, a facility used to process low-enriched uranium for use as fuel in a nuclear plant can be modified to enrich weapons-grade uranium. So, the development of a nuclear program for peaceful use also provides a country with the potential to develop nuclear weapons.

The NSG is a group of 48 nuclear-supplier countries that agreed to work together to prevent proliferation through the implementation of two sets of guidelines for the export of nuclear technology for commercial and peaceful purposes.

Since 2016, the Americans and like-minded members have been supporting the Indian bid — but remain disinclined to accept Pakistan as a member. 

Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

It was created in reaction to the detonation of a nuclear device by India on May 18, 1974, which demonstrated that the transfer of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes could be misused. It prompted several members of the Zangger Committee, a group of nuclear-supplier states established in 1971, to establish the NSG at the behest of US to further regulate nuclear-related exports.

Currently, four states that have not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan — can transfer nuclear technology and material to nuclear-aspirant states. Of those, India and Pakistan have been struggling to secure full membership of NSG.

Of the two, the Indians are in a better position due to their nuclear-cooperation deal with the United States. The Americans convinced NSG member states in 2008 to grant an exception to India. As a consequence, India can import NSG-listed items from participating governments.

Ironically, in granting this exception they ignored India’s violation of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards at the CIRUS nuclear power plant in Trombay, near Mumbai, which had driven the Americans to lobby for the formation of the NSG in the first place.

At the June 2016 meeting of the NSG, the US again pushed for acceptance of India’s membership application. Since then, the Americans and like-minded members have been supporting the Indian bid — but remain disinclined to accept Pakistan as a member.

China did not oppose the exceptional treatment of India, allowing it to import NSG-listed items, in 2008 but in June 2016 vetoed a proposal for an exclusive exemption for India that would have allowed it to become a member of the group. China’s ambassador to Vienna, Shi Zhongjun, said at the time: “NPT membership constitutes one of the prerequisite factors for consideration of NSG participation; [m]ore discussions are needed before the Group is in a position to review…participation by any specific non-NPT state at the meetings of the Group.”

India persuaded China to change its stance on the former’s NSG membership during the recent disarmament and nonproliferation talks between the two countries. Beijing, however, maintains that the criteria “about the admission to the group shall be norm based, and rules applied to give India membership should also apply to all new entrants.”

The upshot of all this is that the chances of Pakistan being accepted as a member of the group appear remote when the NSG next meets. Islamabad lacks the support of Washington and its allies. Moreover, the members of the group have failed to devise a consensual criterion for the entry of non-NPT states to the suppliers club.

—   Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

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