Obama’s Nuclear Vietnam

The administration hard-sells reactor exports while shrugging off proliferation concerns.

In Washington, learning comes hard. Officials may know when to back off when they’ve crossed wires with Congress, but in most cases, and in less time than you’d think, they’re back at it again.

Take the State Department’s rush three years ago to seal a civilian nuclear deal with Vietnam. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. had initialed a draft agreement in July of 2010. It featured nuclear-nonproliferation provisions far looser than what Congress wanted. When the Hill found out, it threw a fit, the White House withdrew the deal, and State promised to lead a government-wide review of U.S. nonproliferation policies.

That was 33 months ago. Last September, State completed the review and forwarded its recommendations to the White House. The president has yet to focus on them. Instead he’s gotten excited about promoting U.S. nuclear-reactor exports to — you guessed it — Vietnam.

Last month he sent a U.S. nuclear-export delegation to Hanoi. It included the White House director for nuclear-energy policy, the under secretary of commerce, the assistant secretary of energy for nuclear energy, and 18 nuclear-industry representatives. Their mission: to persuade Vietnam to buy Westinghouse reactors.

Key Hill committee staffers were caught out. Nobody from the executive branch had bothered even to tell them about the trip. They are now making inquiries to try to discover what happened.

Why should they care?

First, the administration’s heavy emphasis on promoting U.S. nuclear exports (consider the nuclear-power boosterism of his most senior nonproliferation appointee, put on obsequious display at a recent nuclear-industry confab) now seems ascendant over tightening nuclear-transfer controls.

If so, the Vietnam outing speaks to the credibility of the president’s nonproliferation policies. How can one take these policies seriously if the White House is pitching reactors to Hanoi (again) without even bothering to rule on the recommendations of its own nonproliferation-policy review? Did anyone on the U.S. delegation even raise nonproliferation conditions as a possible issue with their Vietnamese hosts? If so, what did they discuss?

It is worth noting that Congress faulted Secretary Clinton’s first nuclear-cooperative deal with Vietnam in 2010 for failing to include the conditions contained in the previous U.S. civilian nuclear agreement, which Congress had just approved — the 2009 U.S.–United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreement. Negotiated by both the Bush and the Obama administrations, it required the UAE to foreswear making nuclear fuel, either by enriching uranium or by chemically separating plutonium from spent reactor fuel — activities that can bring a state to the brink of acquiring nuclear weapons. It also obliged the UAE to accept new, highly intrusive international nuclear inspections. At the time, these restrictions were heralded by the Obama administration as constituting a new nonproliferation “gold standard” for U.S. nuclear-cooperative deals. The model, however, hardly lasted for long.

The official excuse, given on background eight months later, for why Secretary Clinton’s initialed 2010 Vietnam draft deal didn’t include these conditions was that Asian nations, unlike states in the Middle East, were unlikely to engage in military nuclear rivalries. After North Korea’s third nuclear-weapons test, China’s recent flaunting of its military nuclear modernizations, and the latest South Korean and Japanese debates about developing nuclear-weapons options of their own, this argument seems weak.

This brings us to the second reason Hill staffers are curious about the Vietnam junket: South Korea. The Obama administration has asked Congress to act in the next few weeks on a two-year extension of the existing U.S. nuclear-cooperative agreement with Seoul. The existing deal was supposed to be renegotiated so it could be extended for another 30-year period. Seoul, however, wanted Washington to allow it to make nuclear fuel from U.S. nuclear materials. This caused U.S. negotiators to balk. Publicly, U.S. officials worried that giving South Korea the go-ahead to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium would sink any prospect of getting North Korea to back off from doing so.

An additional concern, though, was more immediate and credible: Saying yes might lock down Japanese plans to finally open a large, uneconomical fuel-making plant capable of producing 1,000 to 2,000 nuclear bombs’ worth of “civilian” plutonium a year. If Japan should decide to open this plant, located in Rokkasho, it might easily give Beijing yet another reason to turn its own military preparations up an additional notch. It was for these reasons that U.S. negotiators asked South Korea to agree to a short, two-year extension to allow further negotiations to sort these matters out.

Reflecting these worries, congressional staffers from both parties added modest language to the administration’s draft U.S.–South Korea two-year nuclear-agreement-extension bill. The staffers’ amended language clarified the desirability of keeping nuclear-fuel-making at bay on the Korean peninsula and in Asia more generally. Administration officials, however, have privately made it clear that they want this language taken out.

This raises even more questions. Is the administration going to hold the line on Korean fuel-making? If so, how can it do this without doing the same with Vietnam? Or is the plan to cave in both cases? If so, how do we intend to deal with the nuclear-fuel-making aspirations of Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey?

One diplomatic answer is that we will handle these matters country by country (i.e., case by case). If Congress settles for this, though, it will have forgotten what it was trying to make the White House understand when it first complained about Secretary Clinton’s cutting a loose nuclear deal with Vietnam: That a “case by case” policy is no policy at all.

— Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Va., and editor, with Bruno Tertrais, of Nuclear Security Crises: What Does History Teach? (forthcoming).

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