The Obama administration, in advanced negotiations on nuclear-cooperation agreements with Jordan and Vietnam, has withdrawn a demand that these countries forgo their rights to produce nuclear fuel, senior U.S. officials said. The policy shift, adopted after an extensive interagency review, drew criticism from some U.S. lawmakers, who charged that it could ease the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies.
A letter from senior US officials signals that the country will continue to seek nuclear trade agreements with conditions on enrichment and reprocessing implemented on a "case-by-case" basis. The letter from deputy energy secretary Daniel Poneman and undersecretary of state for arms control and international security Ellen Tauscher was sent to the administration of President Barack Obama on 10 January. The text of the letter was published by a Global Security Newswire article on 23 January.
The Obama administration in 2009 signed a nuclear-cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates that bound the Arab country not to enrich uranium domestically or reprocess spent plutonium fuel, the two technologies that can be used to produce nuclear weapons.
President Barack Obama cited the U.A.E. agreement as the "gold standard" for future nuclear-cooperation pacts. Washington has used the deal to press Iran over its nuclear program, arguing that Tehran should follow the Emirates and rely on the international market for nuclear fuel.
U.S. officials involved in the policy review said Washington risked losing business for American companies seeking to build nuclear reactors overseas, and could greatly diminish its ability to influence the nonproliferation policies of developing countries. And obviously the Obama administration concluded that most countries wouldn't be willing to follow the U.A.E. model, and that insisting on it would hurt American interests.
The fundamental justification for the decision is that insisting on the standard negatively impacts trade opportunities for U.S. companies, which in turn restricts the country's ability to set non-proliferation conditions: "Nuclear trade carries with it a critical nonproliferation advantage in the form of consent rights, along with other opportunities to influence the nuclear policies of our partners"
But the U.S. is pursuing a range of other tools (Nuclear Suppliers Group and fuel leasing arrangements), to ensure that developing countries seek to purchase nuclear fuel from foreign suppliers rather than developing the technologies needed to produce the fuel themselves.
In addition to negotiations with Jordan and Vietnam, the departments of State and Energy are beginning to renegotiate pacts signed in the 1970s with South Korea and Taiwan that will lapse in the coming years. The agreements, which are legally designated as treaties, require congressional approval.
South Korea is beginning to renegotiate its 1974 nuclear-cooperation agreement with the U.S. South Korean officials argue Seoul needs to use this method to safely dispose of the spent fuel coming from the country's growing nuclear-power industry. The 1974 U.S.-South Korean nuclear cooperation agreement requires U.S. consent if “any irradiated fuel elements containing fuel material received from the United States of America [are to be] altered in form or content.” As a matter of policy, South Korea requests that the United States agree to such activities even if U.S.-origin material is not involved. The cooperation agreement will expire in 2014, however, and South Korea wants to negotiate a new agreement that will give it the same programmatic permission that the United States has given the European Union, Japan, Switzerland, and, with certain conditions, India.
Under the agreements with the European Union, India, Japan, and Switzerland, the United States has provided advance long-term consent for reprocessing. In India’s case, according to the Indian-U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement, this long-term consent does not go into effect until India has built and brought into operation “a new national reprocessing facility dedicated to reprocessing material” under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and the two countries have agreed on “arrangements and procedures under which reprocessing or other alteration in form or content will take place in this new facility.”
U.S. officials fear such a move would undercut efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear-weapons program. An agreement with Vietnam that doesn't follow the U.A.E. model could make it harder for the U.S. to get Seoul to accept stringent terms.
U.S. lawmakers are focused on the Jordan negotiation (an agreement is expected at the end of this year), fearing an agreement that allows domestic nuclear-fuel production could have a cascading effect across the Middle East. This is also because the U.A.E.'s pact allows it to renegotiate if another country in the Middle East gains more favorable terms. Saudi Arabia has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. and has echoed Jordan's reservations about giving up its right to enrich uranium, senior Arab diplomats said.
Lawmakers and nonproliferation experts fear more lenient nuclear-cooperation agreements with Jordan and Vietnam could undercut the campaign to contain Iran's nuclear program. "If the U.S. lets Jordan, Vietnam or South Korea make nuclear fuel, you can kiss any attempt to persuade Iran or any other state to forgo fuel making goodbye," said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nuclear Policy Education Center.
Sources: Arms Control Today, Frank von Hippel, March 2010 / Nuclear Policy Education Center, 23 January 2012 / World Nuclear News, 25 January 2012 / Wall Street Journal, 25 January 2012 /