The Future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Nuclear Suppliers Group

Photo Credit: The Express Tribune

By Donna Artusy, Columnist

The likely nomination of India to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) sets a troublesome precedent that undermines the legitimacy of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the NSG. Ratification of the NPT has been a prerequisite to joining the NSG, and moving away from this tradition by admitting India—a non-signatory state of the NPT—would indicate that the NPT is a dated, potentially unnecessary document. As one of the main governing paradigms on nuclear non-proliferation in the international community, the NPT sets forth certain standards that prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and associated material. Only states that exploded a nuclear weapon before 1976—namely, the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China, and France—qualify as a Nuclear Weapon State (NWS)—while all other signatories remain classified as non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS).[1] Non-proliferation and nuclear issues are generally sensitive topics and thus enforcement of international norms and governing international doctrines must not be undermined. To ensure the safety of NSG member states and other countries around the world, dual use technology and the transfer of science and technology information must be more thoroughly scrutinized. In order to strengthen and maintain the legitimacy of the NPT and NSG, three critical steps must be taken; these will need to be carried out by different actors, each of whom plays a critical role in enforcing non-proliferation throughout the international community. Each of the three steps will seek to identify the primary actors involved, set a general timeframe, estimate costs of implementing each step, and present deliverables that demonstrate the objective has been fulfilled. [2]

1 – Withhold India’s Nomination to the NSG until it has signed the NPT

The United States must withhold nomination of India to the NSG until India has signed and complied with the NPT. As the de facto leader of the NSG, the United States maintains a great deal of influence over the NSG, and it must look beyond its short-term goals of strengthening the US-India alliance over undermining the long-term effect of diminishing the legitimacy of the NPT. The concern is not the inclusion of India itself: indeed, any state that wishes to gain membership to the NSG should be held to the same standards as all others.

If India is committed to a peaceful nuclear program as it has stated many times, and represents the view of several prime ministers (including Narendra Modi), compliance should not be problematic.[3] India “…has a responsibility to show the world that its four-decade-long incisive rhetoric on disarmament is backed up by concrete deeds. … It is a burden, but a reasonable one for a nation with world leadership ambitions.”[4] The United States has already signed a deal that essentially bypasses the NPT with the US-India Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in 2006 that allowed India to “…buy and sell nuclear fuel and technology…for civilian purposes, without having to join the NPT or dismantle any of its existing nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons making program.”[5] Exceptions have already been made for India, and India must make a gesture of good faith to substantiate its commitment to a peaceful nuclear program. Within the next year, India should begin to dismantle some of its nuclear facilities that are not used for civilian nuclear power. In the seven nuclear power plants, there are 21 nuclear reactors: some of them can be dismantled to demonstrate good faith toward implementation of the NPT provisions. The process will need to be carried out by a partnership among IAEA officials, scientific advisors, and Indian governmental officials. The cooperation among all three parties will make the process more efficient and fair for all involved groups. India will need to transfer its nuclear material via safeguards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which will also monitor compliance: the associated costs of transferring material safely are not overwhelming, but coordination between the government officials and the Agency may increase such costs.[6] If India demonstrates its commitment to a peaceful program through dismantling after becoming a signatory to the NPT, the NSG should then nominate India for membership. The process of ensuring compliance and signing the NPT will strengthen the legitimacy of the Treaty and the NSG.

2 – IAEA Responsibilities: Enforcement

As the primary body that oversees compliance of the NPT, the IAEA must enforce the NPT through increased inspections and reports to the United Nations (UN) when violations are suspected. These two actors currently work together to review and enforce compliance, but are not obligated to take any actions against states suspected of violations.[7] The language of the NPT would not need to be revised as its provisions already allow for inspections, but it would be in the interests of those who are party to the treaty to agree to add an additional protocol that distinctly outlines enforcement mechanisms. The language in the NPT “would be best served by clearer mechanisms of enforcement that are less dependent on the vicissitudes of current global politics.”[8] Without sufficient mechanisms, there will be inconsistent ‘cherry-picking’ of certain states, which is unfair to countries that already comply with the NPT. Clearer language and enforcement serves the dual purpose of reinforcing the validity of the NPT. The treaty has been successful in curtailing the increase of nuclear weapons states, as illustrated in the following graph:


Source: Graham Allison, “What a Major Arms Control Treaty Teaches Us about the Iran Deal,” Defense One, May 26, 2015, Defense One.

Creating a sufficiently strong coalition that supports enforcement mechanisms may be a lengthy process: the timeframe of approximately two years should allow for sufficient progress to be made on this front. Most likely this resolution will need to come from the UN Security Council with sufficient support from the General Assembly (GA) since it concerns the entire international community. Gaining international support that potentially puts some states under more scrutiny than they had been under previously will take skilled diplomacy and negotiations, and a milestone will be achieved once there has been support for the new protocol. This may be accomplished by gaining full Security Council support in addition to at least 51% of the GA to indicate majority support.

Scientific advisors will need to be consulted to ensure technical compliance is feasible. Industry leaders and government officials from each country must work together to approve associated costs and implementation methodology. The costs associated with this are dependent on how long it takes to build up sufficient support, and how willing individual governments are to work together towards this goal. As part of a multinational endeavor, each government may be willing to contribute only limited amounts and exact costs cannot be determined until this information is known. Potentially, the UNSC permanent members can divide the majority of the costs associated with creating a subcommittee amongst themselves, and each of the NPT member states can contribute a smaller portion towards this effort. Enforcing the NPT through the IAEA is not merely for show; it helps guarantee a safer world that condemns nuclear proliferation. This collective good is endangered if there is a lack of enforcement of NPT provisions.

3 – NSG Responsibilities: Consistency

Parallel with gaining support for an additional protocol to the NPT, the NSG needs to create a consistent application of standards for membership consideration to legitimize its own position in the international community. If exceptions are made for India, this opens the channels for other states (such as Israel and Pakistan) to seek exceptions.[9] The NSG was designed to set constraints on certain dual-use technologies that would be applied for nuclear weapons proliferation and to prevent peaceful civilian technology from being applied towards the use of nuclear weapons technology.[10] Thus, its function is vital in safeguarding against nuclear proliferation and helps sustain the current international infrastructure in the nuclear community. This is a long-term process and will need to be executed from an institutional level.

In order to consistently apply membership standards, the NSG will need to appoint a subcommittee of member states or potentially have a subcommittee of states within the UN act as impartial judges of compliance matters. Such committees will be the liaisons among the scientific institutions, industry leaders, and governmental agencies. The creation of such a coalition(s) will need sufficient support, similar to the above step, and will most likely be met with some resistance: in the long-run, consistent membership standards will benefit the members as well as those who seek membership in the group. If the NSG wants to include India in the group, the NSG can potentially offer guidance to India to help it comply with its standards regarding dismantling of nuclear facilities, technical specifications regarding the nuclear fuel cycle, and the transfer of fissile material out of India.

Milestones reached in this process will be self-evident: the admission or non-admission of certain states to the group will demonstrate whether there has been consistency in membership applications. A more tangible milestone is the formation of the aforementioned subcommittee within the NSG or committee within the UN. The costs associated with this process are again dependent on how long the process takes, and are not necessarily estimable without gauging the interest and resistance that NSG member states may have (this will indicate how much time may be needed to create the subcommittee).

The Future of the NPT and NSG

Enforcement of international treaties is not a simple matter, and will not take place overnight: impactful change must take place at an institutional level over the next two years as outlined above. Gaining the support of member states in the NPT and NSG will not be an easy process, but is necessary to legitimize the NPT and provide validity to the NSG. To safeguard current member states of each institution, the NPT and NSG must make it clear that standards and consistent application of membership rules will to be respected. Legitimacy will be secured by achieving the aforementioned milestones, implementing additional oversight to ensure compliance, and assigning the applicable tasks to the appropriate institutions and representatives.

Each country will work with its own officials, scientific advisors, and industry leaders to facilitate oversight and compliance with the NPT and NSG. In order to fund the subcommittees within the NPT and UN as outlined above, current members can be asked to pay annual fees. The involvement of government and industry leaders provides a more pragmatic approach for implementation of the recommendations of the scientific advisors. Each state will have clearly outlined protocols, procedures, governmental officials, and a projected timeframe in which safeguards can be enforced.

It is imperative that the NPT and NSG remain the predominant international institutions in nuclear non-proliferation in order to guarantee the safety of both member states and non-member states. The risks of endangering nuclear safeguards would not likely be the intention of rational actors, particularly members of these international institutions, but may be an unintentional consequence of their actions or inaction. Assuming India desires a place in the NSG, it must comply with and ratify the NPT to demonstrate good faith; only then should India be able to be nominated to join the NSG. Maintaining and indeed strengthening the legitimacy of the NPT and NSG is an essential step to effecting the long-term safety of the international community.

[1] The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, April 2006,

[2] Please note that the recommendations outlined in this column are brief and do not go into extensive detail: to do so would be to go beyond the scope of this column, but it is worth noting that each of the three steps deserves a more extensive study and examination than can be done in this assessment. Costs are estimated very broadly: costs here are based on institutional revision and some reform, for which determining a set price will not necessarily be realistic.

[3] Leonard Weiss, “India and the NPT,” Strategic Analysis Vol. 34, No. 2 (March 2010) Weiss, 256-262.

[4] Weiss, 270.

[5]Subrata Ghoshroy, “Taking Stock: The US-India Nuclear Deal 10 Years Later,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 16, 2016,; Ghoshroy.

[6] N.a. “Transport of Radioactive Materials,” World Nuclear Association, updated January 2016,

[7] Richard Hooper, “The System of Strengthened Safeguards,” International Atomic Energy Agency publication, April 1997,, 30. ; Julia Choe, “Problems of Enforcement,” Harvard International Review, April 17, 2007,

[8] Choe, “Problems of Enforcement.”

[9] Mark Hibbs, “China, Pakistan, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 17, 2010,

[10] N.a., “Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG),” NTI website,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.