Politics & Policy

Obama’s Other Nuclear Headache

In negotiating civilian nuclear-cooperation agreements, the administration must stick to its “gold standard” of nonproliferation conditions.

In the heat of the running debate over New START, it’s easy to assume that partisan politics has overwhelmed good will when it comes to the issue of nuclear controls. It also would be wrong. In the matter of another nuclear headache — how to spread civilian nuclear technology, which many countries want, without spreading the means to make bombs — both liberals and conservatives are worried that President Obama is about the make the wrong call.

The issue at hand is whether or not two proposed U.S. civilian nuclear-cooperation agreements — one with Jordan, the other with Vietnam — should be conditioned upon these states’ forswearing the making of nuclear fuel (a procedure that can bring states to the very brink of acquiring bombs) and opening up their facilities to intrusive nuclear inspections to help verify that they are adhering to their pledge.

This question is now all the more salient given news that North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program is actually up and running, ready for possible export to other states. Since the Obama administration has publicly argued that all states have a right to make nuclear fuel, it certainly will be difficult to dissuade other countries from following North Korea’s example (or even seeking its help) unless we can get them to forswear making nuclear fuel in the first instance.

This possibility certainly was a key reason why President Obama insisted on these conditions last year when he finalized a U.S. civilian nuclear-cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that the Bush administration had negotiated. At the time, Obama officials proclaimed the UAE conditions as a new nonproliferation “gold standard.” Without those conditions, it is doubtful that Congress, which has long complained about the UAE’s lack of export controls to Iran, would have allowed the agreement to come into force. Now, just a year later, it looks as if the administration is willing to trash the standard that it heralded.

Over the summer, word leaked to the press that State Department diplomats had initialed deals with Vietnam and Jordan that lacked the UAE nonproliferation conditions. Hill staffers on both sides of the aisle were livid. They had gotten their bosses to carry water on the UAE deal on the basis of the conditions’ being a new standard for U.S. nuclear-cooperation agreements. Now they were being played for chumps.

We didn’t claim it was “the gold standard,” one State Department official explained. “It’s just ‘a standard.’” An intriguing theory, but if the U.S. backs off applying the standard in case of Vietnam or Jordan, it pretty much kills the standard altogether. Jordanian officials, it is reported, have already complained that if the U.S. drops the conditions in its agreement with Vietnam but insists on them for Jordan, it is simply conveying its distrust of Muslims.

Yet, if the administration says yes to Vietnam and Jordan without the UAE conditions, it’s unclear how it can refuse Seoul’s demands that South Korea be allowed to recycle its spent fuel (a fuel-making process that would enable a state to separate out plutonium, which can be made into bombs). More important, the deal with the UAE stipulates that if the U.S. reaches a nuclear-cooperation agreement with any other Middle Eastern state that has more generous terms than the one struck with the UAE, then the UAE has the right to renegotiate the deal to secure equal treatment. Stray from demanding the UAE nonproliferation conditions in any future agreement, then, and you pretty much transmute the gold standard into lead.

Some, of course, will argue that the U.S. cannot afford to insist on the higher nonproliferation conditions since it risks losing U.S. reactor sales and the influence that would come with them. However, the chance that such sales would ever be realized is slim to none. American nuclear vendors are not about to expose themselves to liability for damages in the case of a reactor accident on foreign territory. Foreign states, meanwhile, are unwilling to absolve them of such liability. The bottom line is that the U.S. has more to lose from not trying to get other states to follow its nonproliferation lead than it ever might gain from promised reactor exports.

That’s why the chairman and the ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Relations have announced that they intend to introduce legislation that would force the White House to secure a clear majority in both Houses of Congress before proceeding with any nuclear-cooperation agreement with a state that does not yet have nuclear weapons if the agreement lacked the UAE nonproliferation conditions.

That is also why 17 of the nation’s leading nonproliferation experts urged President Obama in a letter dated November 15 not to approve federal energy-loan guarantees to any foreign nuclear suppliers trying to expand their business in the United States unless the president first secures their promise to promote the UAE nonproliferation conditions in any future agreements they themselves may strike with non-weapons-holding states.

It turns out that the nuclear firms of AREVA and EDF, both owned by the French government, want to expand their nuclear business in the U.S. on the backs of the American taxpayers. They have nuclear contracts with the U.S. Department of Energy worth billions of dollars and are seeking billions more in federal loan guarantees to build more power reactors and nuclear-fuel plants here. The Russians, meanwhile, are said to be planning to build a large commercial nuclear-fuel plant in the U.S. and will be seeking licenses and loan guarantees of their own. Holding these nuclear suppliers’ expansion plans hostage to their following America’s nonproliferation lead is hardly unreasonable.

Of course, this only puts a greater burden on President Obama. Most experts are hoping he won’t blink. Certainly, if he is serious about moving the world toward fewer nuclear weapons, he should be in no rush to back off the gold standard his administration created.

— Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and served as Defense Department deputy for nonproliferation policy under President Bush (41). 

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.

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