Intense industry opposition is casting uncertainty over the prospects for a pending House bill that would expand the role of Congress in reviewing nuclear-trade agreements, government sources and experts close to the issue say (see GSN, April 27).
Leading the effort to kill the legislation is the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s lobbying arm. The group has dispatched more than two dozen lobbyists to Capitol Hill at a cost of more than $3 million to oppose the reform legislation, H.R. 1280, as well as advocate the energy sector’s position on other congressional measures.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the bill by unanimous vote in April 2011. The bill would require congressional approval of U.S. nuclear-cooperation pacts with other nations, unless the proposed agreement includes strict nonproliferation measures.
As it stands, however, the House Rules Committee is “actively blocking” H.R. 1280, one aide in that chamber said recently, while another complained about the circulation of misinformation about the bill.
In an effort to spark new interest in the legislation, the committee last month issued a 28-page report on the bill that slammed the Obama administration’s handling of nonproliferation objectives in these types of atomic cooperation negotiations. It argued that Capitol Hill should step up its role in reviewing such agreements and determining which ones can proceed.
At the same time, in a surprising development that could be a potential boost for the congressional measure’s sponsors, the administration has launched a new interagency review of its policy on nuclear trade and nonproliferation, according to sources in and outside of government.
A January policy decision that Washington would decide on a case-by-case basis whether to demand the strictest nonproliferation provisions in such accords--rather than seek such assurances from all trade partners--has drawn forceful resistance from Democrats and Republicans alike (see GSN, March 9).
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has directed that the Obama team move to rethink the approach, Global Security Newswire has learned. That comes despite a January letter to Congress from senior officials with the State and Energy departments explaining why a more proliferation-proof policy would risk alienating prospective trade partners (see GSN, Jan. 23).
A case-by-case approach translates to “no policy at all,” Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said last month. “It’s just one-off.”
He applauded the administration’s latest move to “take another hard look at what we’re doing, if anything, to stem the spread of sensitive technology.”
Should the Obama team ultimately commit itself to stronger nonproliferation terms in its nuclear-trade policy, Congress might feel less compelled to act, according to some issue experts. Lawmakers formulated the H.R. 1280 bill in 2010 and 2011 only after it appeared that the executive branch was taking a more permissive approach in talks with Jordan and Vietnam, sources said.
Under such trade deals, Washington allows U.S. companies to build nuclear reactors abroad or provide sensitive energy materials, technologies or services to foreign nations.
The debate revolves mainly around the “gold standard,” a provision that could be included in U.S. nuclear-cooperation agreements under which partner nations would pledge not to domestically enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium.
These activities can be useful for peaceful nuclear power--the focus of the trade agreements--but also might open the door to clandestine efforts to develop an atomic weapon.
The United Arab Emirates agreed in a 2009 pact with the United States to forsake any enrichment or reprocessing. That led to a debate in Washington as to whether such trade agreements with other nations should include a similar gold-standard promise.
Advocates said this could help prevent future copycats of Iran’s nuclear program, which is widely suspected of having a military dimension despite Tehran’s insistence that it remains dedicated only to peaceful power generation and research.
The House legislation, cosponsored by committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and ranking member Howard Berman, D-Calif., would allow only those trade accords that include the gold standard to be implemented after 90 days of continuous congressional session, unless lawmakers act to stop them. This is seen as a relatively light form of congressional review that typically results in a pact going forward.