Boehner’s spokesman said he was unaware of any conversations his boss might have had with nuclear-industry representatives or other House members regarding H.R. 1280.
“Our staff is obviously always in consultation with the committees about their work and various pieces of legislation, but I couldn’t say for certain whether the speaker has had any conversations with any of the committee chairs,” Buck said.
A spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who controls the schedule for bills to be considered on the House floor, declined to make any public comment.
One GOP leadership aide, though, said on Wednesday that the bill “is working its way through the committee process and has been referred to the Rules Committee.”
What are members of Congress and their aides hearing from nuclear industry lobbyists about H.R. 1280? Representatives of the energy sector are arguing the United States simply is not in a strong enough position in the global marketplace to start making demands on up-and-coming atomic energy customers, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam.
“In decades past … we held a great deal of influence over global commercial nuclear trade, by virtue of our strong, dominant position as a supplier,” said one industry source at the March interview. “And when we added new terms for nuclear trade, the customers would accept them. They didn’t have much of a choice.”
Over the past few decades, though, the sector has seen a steep rise in global nuclear energy sellers, including France and Russia. Some of these industry players have successfully undercut their U.S. competitors with government-subsidized prices, according to experts.
“It’s really touchy because if you’re in a position where you’re just sort of teetering on whether you’ll even get to be a supplier, you’re not in a position to dictate terms,” the industry source said. “Our competitors will jump on anything that calls into question whether the U.S. is a reliable supplier. And by reliable supplier, you don’t mean just are they going to transfer this technology when you need it. Are they going to be a reliable supplier for the next [several] decades?”
The pending House legislation does not make the no-enrichment-or-reprocessing gold standard a requirement of every future nuclear trade agreement, but would simply require a congressional vote of approval for pacts that lack such pledges.
Industry advocates fear, though, that the bill is a big step toward an ironclad requirement.
“Essentially it would” make the gold standard an implicit demand in all future agreements, the industry source said.
“I think a lot of folks would tell you, look how little is getting passed through Congress,” said the other nuclear energy source taking part in the March question-and-answer session. Even approval legislation for relatively noncontroversial nuclear trade accord renewals could become politicized, the two interviewees agreed.
One congressional aide said that nuclear-energy lobbyists are sometimes leaving lawmakers and staff with misleading information.
“I’ve seen the lobbying that they’ve done,” the staffer said. “They do their best to scare members’ offices” and have “misrepresented” what the legislation does, either “by design or ignorance.”
Some of those in the nuclear industry, though, insist that they share the bill’s underlying objectives of restraining the spread of dangerous technologies.
“It’s all very well intended,” said the first industry source of congressional motives. “We all understand what’s driving it. We know the frustrations at dealing with nuclear proliferation and the two break-out countries of Iran and North Korea. It’s been a very frustrating experience to deal with that in an effective, multilateral way.”
That frustration has boiled over into proposed legislation that will not actually resolve nonproliferation problems, this advocate argued.
“What is there for Congress to do about it but legislate?” the source said. “[However,] the alternative to U.S. supply isn’t, as in the '50s, no nuclear. It’s nuclear supply by someone else.”
“This is not an impotent Congress grasping at straws because they’re frustrated,” one Capitol Hill aide responded. Rather, lawmakers are “trying to establish a positive precedent in the global nuclear commerce and nonproliferation regime to benefit everyone. In the view of some lawmakers, [the idea] that the industry is terrified [that the legislation] may affect their bottom lines is shameful.”
“Stopping the spread of nuclear weapons must be among our highest priorities as we work to protect U.S. security and that of our allies,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement provided to GSN on Friday. “H.R. 1280 will strengthen Congress’s ability to bring us closer to achieving the goal of protecting the American people from the threat of nuclear material and technologies falling into dangerous hands.”