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Legislative Quagmire Grips Nuclear-Security Pacts in U.S. Legislative Quagmire Grips Nuclear-Security Pacts in U.S.

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Legislative Quagmire Grips Nuclear-Security Pacts in U.S.

Just weeks before the second Global Nuclear Security Summit convenes in South Korea, the United States still has not enacted a law critical to ratifying what the Obama administration at the first summit called “the two key international treaties governing nuclear security” (see GSN, Oct. 6, 2011).

The Senate endorsed both pacts four years ago without opposition. However, Congress has yet to sign off on legislation that would force the United States to come into line with the mandates.


The administration is still wrangling with Congress over legal specifics for implementing the international agreements, according to representatives of the State Department and involved congressional committees.

Officials from the Justice and State departments are meeting routinely with Capitol Hill staffers in an effort to resolve disputes, but neither side has promised formal action on the proposals prior to the March 26-27 event in Seoul or before the current congressional term ends next January.

Some issue specialists called for senior-level White House involvement in finalizing U.S. adoption of the agreements, a step they said is crucial to improving atomic-material protections around the world and to bolstering global collaboration in apprehending and punishing potential nuclear-terrorism suspects.


“The White House needs to call Democrats who are on the Hill and tell them to make it happen,” said Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington.

One of the two arrangements requires member nations to criminalize the possession or use of sensitive materials in a nuclear or radiological weapon with the intent of causing death and destruction. It also establishes guidelines for cooperating in the extradition and prosecution of individuals linked to a nuclear plot or threat. The 2005 pact -- called the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism -- took effect in 2007 and now has 77 member states; the United States, however, remains outside the regime.

The second agreement, also completed in 2005, would revise the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material to demand a number of requirements aimed at protecting nonmilitary nuclear material in domestic use, storage, or transport. The accord presently only requires such measures for material in transit between countries. To take effect, the amendment must be ratified by 97 of the original 145 signatories to the 1980 pact; 53 had done so as of late February, according to a U.N. document.

At the 2010 nuclear summit in Washington, the Obama administration said the United States had “accelerated efforts to complete ratification procedures” for the convention and amendment. One month earlier, it had provided Congress with a draft bill to implement the agreements, describing the legislation as “nearly identical” to a proposal put forward by the Bush administration in July 2008.


No lawmaker has sponsored a bill in Congress for complying with the treaties, however. Last year, the Justice Department provided the new 112th Congress with a slightly revised proposal for meeting the terms of the pacts. Also included in the submission was the department’s fourth draft bill since 2007 for implementing two separate agreements on legal procedures for terrorism cases involving ships or fixed platforms, as well as overseas transfers of terrorist fugitives or of WMD materials or delivery systems.

The Senate in September 2008 provided constitutionally mandated “advice and consent” for all four deals, but the two bills for complying with the agreements would also require approval from the House of Representatives.

The Obama administration in 2010 launched discussions with Congress aimed at hammering out consensus language for implementing the two nuclear-security agreements, and the State Department as of late January was holding talks on all four pacts “at least once a month or so” with staffers from the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees in the House or Senate, one department official said. The Justice Department has also participated in the discussions, said the source, who was authorized to speak only on condition of anonymity.

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