‘Flexible’ Nuclear Trade
As Senator Rubio put it in a remarkable hearing, the administration’s approach is “a house of cards.”

Uranium centrifuges


On January 30, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a remarkable hearing on upcoming U.S. agreements with other countries to permit the sale to them of U.S. nuclear technology. For the first time, a bipartisan majority of the senators participating — and a surprising number turned out — rejected the executive-branch line that stricter rules on nuclear commerce would be counterproductive.

What specifically troubled the committee was the Obama administration’s unwillingness to include in these agreements a requirement that buyer countries promise not to seek fuel technologies (enrichment and reprocessing) that could give them access to nuclear explosives (highly enriched uranium and plutonium). Everyone acknowledges that a country that can enrich uranium, or reprocess spent fuel to extract plutonium, is within easy reach of The Bomb.

The administration nevertheless argues that inclusion of this tight requirement makes it difficult to negotiate nuclear agreements and thereby gain both the commercial benefits and the influence that engaging in nuclear trade brings. It wants to pursue a “flexible” approach that concedes the fuel-technology issue to the buyers’ discretion, with the hope of persuading them to act responsibly.

Chairman Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) and ranking member Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) did a very workmanlike job of exposing the inconsistencies in the testimony of Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman and Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman. In his quiet and friendly way, Corker was especially tough. He told Poneman of the concern that the Energy Department’s “involvement actually in these negotiations is sometimes what drives us to have these happenstance, ad hoc agreements” in which commercial interests “trump” the “nuclear nonproliferation piece.”

Poneman insisted on his devotion to nonproliferation (“There is no commercial benefit that is worth a proliferation risk, period,” he maintained), but his protestations came off lamely as he was there primarily to argue for flexible arrangements to allow commercial deals to proceed. Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) caught the committee’s skeptical mood regarding the administration’s plea for diplomatic flexibility in the nuclear field with his question, “How is this not a house of cards?”

Nor were the senators buying any more the line that the Senate needn’t bother about the details of the agreements. These are negotiated secretly by the administration and, once revealed, enter into force promptly unless stopped by a congressional vote. An agreement already negotiated with Vietnam and due soon to be formally submitted hasn’t yet been shown to the senators. In fact, up to now Congress has played, as Senator Corker unhappily put it, “a zero role.” Secretary Countryman tried to assure him that the State Department team expressed the Senate’s view during negotiations, and thus the senators were present “even when you don’t know you are.” Corker responded drily, “We might want to express it ourselves.”

This hearing was remarkable also because, unprecedented as it was, the next day there was not a word about it in a single newspaper. C-SPAN decided not to cover it, apparently because the subject seemed too “wonkish.” It’s a familiar phenomenon. Everyone from the president on down agrees there is hardly a more important subject than proliferation. Last November, President Obama even issued an executive order extending the “national emergency” with respect to proliferation. Think about it: We are supposed to be in a proliferation-caused national emergency, and it is pretty much business as usual.

The flow of nuclear trade and its proliferation significance doesn’t get covered much because the subject is too complicated technically and legally for most reporters. And if you don’t understand it yourself, it’s hard to explain it to your readers.

Perhaps most significant in reducing press interest is that the proliferation consequences are speculative and may come decades in the future. This extended time scale is a second factor, along with the lack of press attention, that permits administrations to get away with irresponsible behavior, because the adverse effects are likely to become evident on someone else’s watch. Precisely on this lack of regard for future international security, the hearing produced stunning, if unintentional, admissions from the Departments of State and Energy.


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