Politics & Policy

The U.S.-Vietnam Nuclear Deal

Any nuclear-cooperation deal must meet the nonproliferation gold standard.

On October 10, Secretary of State John Kerry revealed that while one team of State Department negotiators was trying to get Iran to back off producing nuclear fuels that can also be used as explosives, another team negotiated a U.S.-Vietnam Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement — which Kerry initialed — that contains no legal bars to such fuel activities. This disparity will not escape Iran’s attention. It will also limit what restrictions on the making of nuclear fuel U.S. negotiators can demand of South Korea as they renew America’s current civilian-nuclear-cooperation agreement with Seoul. Congress will get an opportunity in December to review the Vietnam agreement. It should say No.

#ad#The unspoken official rationale for tolerating lax nonproliferation conditions in such agreements is the old saw that these deals will generate billions of dollars in U.S. nuclear exports and create thousands of new U.S. jobs. That was the argument for striking the 2008 agreement with India, a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) holdout. The economic gains there turned out to be illusory. The prospects for U.S. jobs from nuclear sales to Vietnam are equally dim.

The State Department, however, continues to hold to wildly optimistic nuclear-industry projections. Secretary Kerry says that Vietnam’s nuclear-power program will grow to $50 billion by 2030. Earlier this year, Under Secretary Rose Gottemoeller threw out a number for U.S. nuclear exports of $100 billion in the next ten years. She assured the nuclear-industry association that President Obama was behind the exporters and had formed an inter-departmental nuclear “Team U.S.A.” to help them. Armed with these forecasts, the team promptly headed for Vietnam.

There are lots of reasons to be cautious about pushing nuclear power in Vietnam. There is no adequate safety agency. Coastal plants would be vulnerable to tsunamis. The country lacks necessary infrastructure. Its one Russian nuclear project has been delayed for three years. Vietnam also is a harsh police state where public opinion doesn’t count.  For these reasons, the U.S. should be increasing its conditions on nuclear cooperation with Hanoi. In addition, not demanding tighter nonproliferation controls will set a dangerous precedent.

Civilian-nuclear-power programs give states that are so inclined a clear leg up toward nuclear weapons. And access to nuclear fuel technologies (think Iran) gives them a quickly executable weapons option. Most governments are not inclined to make bombs. But governments change, and, when they do, the option remains. The only way to maintain a reasonable margin of safety in nuclear programs overseas is to get most states to forgo making their own nuclear fuel either by enriching uranium or by chemically separating plutonium from spent reactor fuel. That was the insight that underlay President Ford’s and President Carter’s nuclear policies, as well as President George W. Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

It was actually under George W. Bush that a nuclear agreement was negotiated with the United Arab Emirates that prohibited nuclear-fuel-making activities. This came to be known as the nonproliferation “gold standard” for nuclear cooperation. Instead of relaxing these terms, we should be holding fast to them, while working with others to conform to the same policy. Only in this way can we keep foreign nuclear-power activities reasonably secure from misuse for weapons.

Unfortunately, the State Department doesn’t seem to share this view. It prefers a flexible case-by-case approach, and sees the effort to apply a strict, uniform policy as an obstacle to achieving much more modest commitments to slow down proliferation. The trouble is that such diplomatic diffidence leads ultimately to a world with many countries being technologically within easy reach of nuclear weapons.

Sensitive to this criticism, the administration has leaked stories that there is nothing to worry about in the current agreement because Vietnam has made a “political commitment” not to engage in the worrisome nuclear-fuel-making activities. But a political promise is not the same thing as a legally binding agreement. And while Vietnam may never get involved in making nuclear fuel, or even finish its first nuclear plant, the precedent of this nuclear agreement will weigh heavily in our future negotiations with others.  

In fact, the secrecy surrounding the Vietnam agreement suggests that something is off. Even after Secretary Kerry’s public announcement, State has kept the text under wraps. Even Congress hasn’t seen it. State offered briefings to members but excluded their staffs. The Senate, to its credit, refused this arrangement. All of this is a long way from the Atomic Energy Act’s requirement that Congress be kept “fully and currently informed.”

To overturn the Vietnam agreement, both houses of Congress would have to pass a bill to that effect — with veto-proof margins. Whether that is possible or not, Congress should express its displeasure. That may be enough to get State to pull back on the Vietnam agreement, as it did once before, in 2010, when Secretary Hillary Clinton initialed an earlier version that failed to meet the gold standard and Congress complained.

This and previous clashes with State over other nuclear deals clearly suggests that Capitol Hill has ceded too much authority over authorizing civilian nuclear-cooperation agreements — which are very nearly treaties — to the Executive. In the last Congress, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved draft legislation (HR-1280) that would require nuclear-cooperation agreements that forsake the gold standard to be voted upon by both houses. Because the Vietnam deal fails to meet those conditions, Congress should first push Mr. Kerry to pull his deal back. It then should start dusting off that bill.

— Victor Gilinsky is an energy consultant and served two terms on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and editor of the forthcoming book Moving Beyond Pretense: Nuclear Power and Nonproliferation.

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