In advance of the October hearing, Sensenbrenner received letters from several top Bush-era nuclear officials urging action to advance the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear material.
“Approving the implementing legislation … is important because it would strengthen the international regime to counter nuclear terrorism and because it would, among others, criminalize specified offenses such as the possession of radioactive materials other than nuclear material that are not now permitted by [U.S.] law,” former National Nuclear Security Administration head Linton Brooks said in one of the statements.
The move could also help the United States “steer the outcome” of this month’s summit, Brooks wrote.
Pomper said the amendment would not impose specific physical security requirements for nuclear material in member nations, but it could provide “a foothold” for pressuring signatory states to accept voluntary audits and to agree to international recommendations, such as calls by the International Atomic Energy Agency last year for security assessments, physical barriers, human sentries and other measures at member nations’ nuclear sites.
The amendment remains “well short” of the number of ratifications required to take effect, he noted.
“A lot of countries look at us and say, ‘If the U.S. isn’t going to ratify this, why should we bother?’ ” Pomper said. “We were the ones who pushed the negotiation of this amendment, so this is doubly embarrassing.”
A one-time senior State Department nuclear-security official under President Bush aired the same concern.
“I can assure you that other countries look to the United States' action or inaction on this amendment … as a guide to their own behavior,” Andrew Semmel, who served from 2003 to 2007 as deputy assistant secretary of State for nuclear nonproliferation policy and negotiations, said in his own letter to Sensenbrenner.
The International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism has already entered into force. Ratification by the United States could serve to further broaden its membership, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman said told the House subcommittee in October.
“While 77 states are party to [the agreement], it still lags far behind other similar counterterrorism conventions, most of which have over 150 states parties,” Countryman said. “The U.S. has ratified the 12 [earlier] counterterrorism conventions … and U.S. leadership in promoting those treaties has been instrumental in getting other countries to also ratify those treaties.”
This month’s summit in Seoul could provide crucial leverage for action on the agreements, said Kingston Reif, nuclear nonproliferation head for the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.
“The question is if the U.S. doesn’t get this done after the summit, and there’s not necessarily pressure to do it until the next summit or if there’s not really a time line at all, I don’t know how that’s going to … encourage Congress to act on this,” Reif said. “The time is now.”
“Congress has oversight responsibility on this and they should do their due diligence … but this has been going on for months and months and months now, and the time has since passed to move this process forward,” he said.