Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the nuclear suppliers group in 2019-2020

In June 2019, Kazakhstan takes over the Chairmanship of the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) from the current chair Latvia.

Tariq Rauf.

In June 2019, Kazakhstan takes over the Chairmanship of the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) from the current chair Latvia.

The 2019 session of the NSG Plenary will be held on June 20-21 in Nur-Sultan under the chairmanship of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

The 48 “Participating Governments” (PGs) in the NSG are: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Republic of Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and United States.

Some of the key issues before the NSG, among others, are: controlling intangible transfer of nuclear technology and know-how; further strengthening nuclear export controls and verification by the IAEA; and criteria for membership of countries not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – in 2016, India followed by Pakistan tendered applications for membership in the NSG.

Origins of Nuclear Export Controls

From the beginning of the age of nuclear technology in the 1940s, it was understood that transfers of nuclear technology and materials would need to be controlled to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. Some of the early attempts to prevent nuclear proliferation, such as the UN Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC) and the Baruch Plan relied on policies of denying access to nuclear materials and technology. However, after the initial nuclear proliferation by the US in 1945, followed by the USSR in 1949 and then by the UK in 1952, it was clear that the policy of secrecy and denial would not work and a new system would need to be set up to utilize the myriad benefits of nuclear energy while ensuring that its use remained exclusively peaceful. This led to the “Atoms for Peace” proposal by US President Eisenhower at the United Nations in December 1953 to set up an International Atomic Energy Agency to facilitate sharing of peaceful nuclear technology. The IAEA was established in 1957, Kazakhstan became the 120th Member State of the Agency in February 1994.

Zangger Committee

Export controls were formalized in the NPT which entered into force in March 1970 and required its States parties to only supply nuclear material to non-nuclear-weapon States under IAEA-NPT safeguards. Under the chairmanship of Dr Claude Zangger, a Swiss nuclear scientist, a committee was set up to develop a list of nuclear materials whose export to non-nuclear-weapon States would require or “trigger” IAEA-NPT safeguards. The “Zangger Committee” (ZAC), first met on 11 March 1971 and established a list of nuclear items that required safeguards, known as the “Trigger List”, and also defined the procedures and conditions under which nuclear exports should be licensed. These understandings of the ZAC were first published in September 1974 as IAEA document INFCIRC/209, and the Trigger List since then has been amended and updated several times. To be clear, unlike the NSG, from the beginning the Zangger Committee required NPT-IAEA, or “full-scope safeguards” on the export of trigger list items to non-nuclear-weapon States in accordance with the NPT.

Unlike the NSG, the Zangger Committee has had and continues to have a direct link between NPT export controls and the IAEA because of its responsibility for the Trigger List and the recognition by the NPT States parties as the “faithful interpreter” of NPT mandated export controls. This particular point unfortunately is still not well understood by many States and perhaps at a later date when Kazakhstan can take up the chairmanship of the Zangger Committee it can help better explain the relationship between the ZAC and the NSG.

Nuclear Suppliers Group establishment

Under the US “Atoms for Peace” programme and under its Soviet equivalent, nuclear technology for peaceful applications was transferred to more than 30 countries, subject to both IAEA and national US/USSR safeguards. In May 1974, India detonated a so-called “peaceful nuclear explosion” using plutonium derived from Canadian supplied uranium irradiated in a US supplied “CIRUS” research reactor.

Both Canada and the US considered India’s action to be in violation of peaceful use commitments and thus they took the lead with the support of France, Germany, Japan, UK and USSR to set up a group of nuclear exporters, known as the “London Club” to regulate the export of both nuclear materials and technologies and also to include two of the then non-NPT States – France and Japan.

Meeting in London in 1975, the seven countries (listed above), reached an ad referendum understanding on export control conditions for nuclear materials and technology that was published in January 1978 in IAEA document INFCIRC/254, called the “Nuclear Suppliers Guidelines”. These guidelines included physical protection of nuclear material and the principle of exercising “restraint: in the transfer of sensitive nuclear technologies – uranium enrichment and reprocessing of plutonium – as well as restrictions on the replication of nuclear facilities using transferred equipment. Ostensibly this was to prevent India from illegally copying the Canadian supplied CANDU heavy water power reactor, but this was not successful as India went on to commission and operate heavy water reactors based on the CANDU design. Unlike, the Zangger Committee, the NSG did not require full-scope safeguards on nuclear exports, only IAEA safeguards (which could be either NPT-IAEA safeguards or pre-NPT IAEA “item specific” safeguards).

Following the discovery in 1991 of Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapon acquisition programme, 26 nuclear exporting countries met in The Hague and formed the “Nuclear Suppliers Group” as the successor of the London Club. In 1994, the NSG adopted a “Non-Proliferation Principle,” whereby a supplier, notwithstanding other provisions in the NSG Guidelines, should authorise a transfer only when satisfied that the transfer would not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. By 1995, the NSG guidelines included “dual use” goods.

In 1995, NPT States parties agreed to the principle of the requirement of full-scope safeguards as a condition of supply for new supply agreements as well as internationally legally binding commitments not to acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

NSG “Guidelines” are published at the request of NSG PGs by the IAEA as document INFCIRC//254 that is regularly revised or updated. The NSG Part 1 Guidelines (Trigger List Items) govern the export of items that are especially designed or prepared for nuclear use, including: (i) nuclear material; (ii) nuclear reactors and equipment therefor; (iii) non-nuclear material for reactors; (iv) plants and equipment for the reprocessing, enrichment and conversion of nuclear material and for fuel fabrication and heavy water production; and (v) technology (including software) associated with each of the above items. The NSG Part 2 Guidelines govern the export of nuclear-related dual-use items and technologies, that is, items that can make a major contribution to an unsafeguarded nuclear fuel cycle or nuclear explosive activity; but that have non-nuclear uses as well, for example in civilian industry. A full history of the NSG can be found in the latest version of IAEA document INFCIRC/539.

The NSG website lists the “factors” that are taken into account for participationor membership that include the following:

a) the ability to supply items (including items in transit) covered by the Annexes to Parts 1 and 2 of the NSG Guidelines;

b) adherence to the Guidelines and action in accordance with them;

c) enforcement of a legally based domestic export control system which gives effect to the commitment to act in accordance with the Guidelines;

d) adherence to one or more of the NPT, the Treaties of Pelindaba, Rarotonga, Tlatelolco, Bangkok, Semipalatinsk or an equivalent international nuclear non-proliferation agreement, and full compliance with the obligations of such agreement(s); and

e) Support of international efforts towards non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and of their delivery vehicles.

Despite these specified “factors”, in 2005 the US authorized full nuclear cooperation with India without requiring India to fulfil these criteria. And in 2008, under strong pressure from the US, the NSG approved a “waiver” for India, thus permitting its members to engage in full civilian nuclear cooperation with India. These actions became highly controversial and are considered by many experts as counter to understandings reached in the NPT review process in 1995 and 2000, and also contrary to certain provisions in some nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties.

Over the past several years, India has engaged in high pressure diplomacy to be accorded membership in the NSG. Not to be outdone, Pakistan also has been pressing its case for membership. Membership criteria for non-NPT States parties remains one of the most vexing and controversial issues before the NSG.

Implementation of Nuclear Export Controls

It should be clearly understood that both the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Zangger Committee are two arrangements that administer multilateral nuclear export controls as agreed by their respective member States, and not by the international community. These arrangements remain informal and are not legally binding on the part of their respective member States; but they represent a binding policy commitment on the part of each of the participating governments.

Also, it is claimed by the member States that neither the NSG nor the Zangger Committee themselves deny exports neither do they approve exports. Any export licence approvals or denials by member States are based on their national export control laws or policies and/or on the basis of common principles and conditions ofsupply agreed by them through the NSG and the ZAC.

As all States except for India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and Southern Sudan are parties to the NPT, some experts are of the view that the Zangger Committee and the Nuclear Suppliers Group should be superseded by an international nuclear export control treaty or arrangement. This because, all States except for the five named above, are bound by the NPT and its review process to require export controls and thus the international legitimacy and credibility of nuclear export controls can be enhanced and formalized rather than being implemented by self-selected groups of States.

Kazakhstan’s Chairmanship of the NSG

Kazakhstan ascends to the chairmanship of the Nuclear Suppliers Group at a critical juncture in international politics where multilateralism and pacta sunt servanda (the principle that agreements must be honoured) remain under threat. The consensus in the NPT review process on nuclear disarmament has frayed to near breaking point. And, unlike Kazakhstan, countries that never joined the NPT and have exploded and possess nuclear weapons are vying for NSG membership—thus giving them access to civilian nuclear technology and material in the absence of any internationally legally binding commitments to nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament.

Kazakhstan brings the strongest credentials, among all of the 47 PGs to the NSG Chairmanship; indeed Kazakhstan’s actions in support of the global nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament regime are unparalleled.

In brief, in October 1990 then USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev, in response to the request by Mr Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first President of Kazakhstan, announced a moratorium on nuclear weapon tests at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan where about 500 nuclear detonations had been carried out by the USSR since 1949.

Following independence in December 1991, Kazakhstan found itself in possession of the fourth largest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world after the Russian Federation, the United States and Ukraine. These nuclear forces included 104 SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 40 Tu-95 strategic bombers armed with air-launched cruise missiles, totalling approximately 1,410 nuclear warheads.

In an unprecedented move, the new Kazakhstan government renounced nuclear weapons and repatriated all nuclear warheads to the Russian Federation for dismantlement by April 1995. It also completely dismantled the nuclear weapon testing infrastructure at Semipalatinsk by July 2000; and earlier in 1994 approximately 600kg of weapon-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) was removed from the Ulba Metallurgical Plant to the US, in addition 2,900kg of nuclear fuel (enriched up to 26% U-235) was removed from the Mangyshlak Atomic Energy Combine in Aktau to Ulba for down-blending into low enriched uranium for civilian nuclear applications under IAEA safeguards.

On February 14, 1994, Kazakhstan acceded to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon State. Kazakhstan signed its NPT-related comprehensive safeguards agreement (INFCIRC/504) with the IAEA on July 26, 1994, which entered into force on August 11, 1994. On February 6, 2004, Kazakhstan signed the additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement, and it entered into force on May 9, 2007. Kazakhstan was one of the leaders in establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Central Asia.

Besides several other initiatives, Kazakhstan signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) on September 30, 1996 and ratified it on May 14, 2002. Kazakhstan remains an unrelenting champion of the CTBT and has noted this treaty’s importance during its presidency of the UN Security Council. And, resisting significant pressure, Kazakhstan showed determination in signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on March 2, 2018.


During its chairmanship of the NSG, Kazakhstan would be well placed given its long record of significant achievements in promoting nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament, to guide the NSG in meeting its challenges in an open, fair and transparent manner.

Peaceful nuclear applications are in use in nearly every country in the world, some 30 States rely on electricity generated in nuclear power plants and some others are in the process of doing so, and nuclear technologies contribute to several of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs). In all these areas, enhanced, fair and transparent cooperation in peaceful applications of nuclear energy can be facilitated by the member States of the NSG.

During Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the NSG, the 50th anniversary of the NPT shall be commemorated in April-May 2020 at the NPT review conference in New York at the United Nations. This should provide a unique opportunity for NSG participating governments, under the leadership of Kazakhstan, to recommit to the NPT, promote the early entry into force of the CTBT and also make its ratification a “factor” for all present and future NSG member countries, and work collaboratively to find common ground on the TPNW.

The author formerly was Head of Nuclear Verification and Security Policy Coordination at the IAEA, Alternate Head of the IAEA NPT Delegation 2002-2010, and point of contact in the Office of the Director General for the NSG and the ZAC. Exclusively personal views are expressed in this article.