For agreements that do allow the buyer nation to enrich or reprocess, the bill would involve a higher test: It would require a congressional vote of approval before going into effect.
As things stand under current law, the Atomic Energy Act is relatively permissive, allowing any so-called Section 123 nuclear-cooperation agreement to move forward following the 90-day waiting period.
A State Department spokesman last week said that the Obama administration continues to oppose the House bill. A July 2011 position paper said that the agency "shares many of the policy objectives reflected in H.R. 1280, but is deeply concerned by many of the bill’s provisions."
The administration has said the legislation could make it more difficult for the U.S. nuclear industry to compete for foreign sales and ultimately could deny Washington influence over its prospective trade partners’ nonproliferation policies.
Those who support the bill’s objectives see it differently.
“The critics’ basic position is that Congress cannot be trusted to consider and vote upon nuclear-cooperation agreements according to their nonproliferation benefits,” asserted one congressional aide this week. “These agreements authorize trade in nuclear reactors and sensitive nuclear exports and could lay the basis for military applications, as in Iran. Sure, Congress can vote on multibillion-dollar free-trade agreements, but not nuclear reactors.”
This Capitol Hill aide and several others spoke for this story on condition of not being named, lacking permission to address the issue publicly.
Industry advocates are convinced that the taller hurdle for congressional approval would mean that many future nuclear trade accords negotiated by Washington would fall victim to political scuffles, die on the vine, and represent a huge blow to the domestic nuclear sector.
“If you didn’t have the gold standard or equivalent language in a ‘123 agreement,’ it would take an affirmative act of both houses to put the agreement in place,” one industry source griped about H.R. 1280 in a late-March interview.
“It’s hard enough just to get the requisite 90 continuous session days to put it in front of Congress and actually just sit there and become law,” another industry representative said. “To get both houses to approve a ‘123’ by joint resolution, I think most congressional staffers would tell you that’s kind of a stretch.”
Both industry sources demanded anonymity in this article, saying they were not authorized to openly discuss the hotly contested legislation.
The U.S. nuclear energy sector has established a significant presence on the Hill and has made H.R. 1280 an important focus. Twenty companies and industry organizations--from the French-based AREVA Group to the U.S. powerhouse Xcel Energy--have paid lobbyists this year and last to explain their positions on this bill, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Topping the list is the Nuclear Energy Institute, which spent more than $2 million in 2011 for its staff to lobby on legislation that included the Ros-Lehtinen-Berman bill. The group’s rate of spending is up considerably in 2012, with $755,000 already spent on staff lobbyists for this purpose in the year’s first quarter alone, according to CRP data.
The industry arm also paid two outside lobbying firms, Kountoupes Consulting and the Mathis Group, a combined total of $160,000 in 2011 and $30,000 to date in 2012 to advocate against H.R. 1280, among other NEI legislative priorities, states information compiled by the watchdog organization.
All told, the institute spent more than $3 million in 2011 and more than $1 million thus far this year, using more than two dozen staff lobbyists and external consultants to address with lawmakers and staff all the legislation before Congress that it seeks to affect, CRP data show.
Some cite industry lobbying as a key reason why the Foreign Affairs Committee-sponsored bill might never make it to the House floor.
“For the moment, too many people in town have been bought,” Sokolski said.
The House legislation has stalled for just over a year and the Obama administration’s latest policy review is, by some counts, its third on the same issue since 2009.
However, Sokolski voiced confidence that the global consequences of nuclear proliferation and a need for more serious response measures will, at some point, carry the day.
“In time, they’ll listen to their conscience rather than their wallet,” he said of elected officials.
The House Rules Committee--which shares jurisdiction under the 1954 Atomic Energy Act for the process by which Congress approves nuclear trade pacts--thus far has not acted on the H.R. 1280 legislation. Unless the rules panel actively refers the measure to the House floor, it can go no further, according to congressional staffers.