In Mongolia, there is a search for "political cover and some amount of political consensus" on the issue, Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment's Nuclear Policy Program, said in an interview.
Limits on Mongolia's Nuclear Activities?
Meanwhile, it remains uncertain whether Mongolian leaders plan to develop a capability to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium as part of their fuel-services menu. These capabilities can be useful for either civil atomic energy needs or for the development of nuclear weapons.
"I've heard zero interest expressed by any Mongolian in any fuel-cycle activity like enrichment or reprocessing," the senior Energy official said on Wednesday.
By the same token, though, the official could not offer assurances that Mongolia has ruled out the notion of enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium on its own soil, as its capabilities to handle nuclear materials develop.
"Unless I were with them 24 hours a day, I have never heard them say a thing about it. I've never heard anything about it," the Obama administration official said. "But I don't know what anybody has said to third parties."
A bipartisan bill pending in the House would potentially make it more difficult for the White House to gain congressional approval for any pending nuclear cooperation agreement unless the trading partner has, among other things, relinquished a right to enrich or reprocess nuclear fuel on its territory (see GSN, March 25).
The Obama administration included this "gold standard" provision in a 2009 nuclear trade agreement with the United Arab Emirates, but it has not yet said publicly whether or how it might apply the policy to other nations (see GSN, Jan. 25).
A so-called "123" agreement--a type of trade accord governed by the 1954 Atomic Energy Act--would be required before Washington could assist Mongolia with nuclear technologies or know-how, even if U.S.-fabricated fuel never enters that nation for storage.
Depending on the level of U.S. assistance permitted by a trade pact, Washington could conceivably exert a great amount of leverage over how Mongolia proceeds in entering the nuclear energy market.
Mongolian-origin fuel could actually become regarded as U.S.-origin material "if it is enriched or fabricated into fuel on U.S. soil," said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the Global Security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Another way it could occur is if the fuel is irradiated in a reactor that has used any U.S. technologies or equipment."
That designation could allow Washington a "right of return" of its atomic materials or equipment if it determines that Ulaanbaatar has exceeded its rights under any future nuclear trade pact--for example, by opting to domestically enrich or reprocess nuclear fuel contrary to the accord.
Leading up to possible negotiations on a nuclear trade agreement with Mongolia, Hibbs said that a pact could encounter some political opposition in Washington if Ulaanbaatar insists on keeping its enrichment and reprocessing options open.
"Some people in Washington have been a little apprehensive about whether Mongolia would want to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel, especially if the U.S. at some point agreed to support a multilateral fuel-cycle project in that country," he told GSN.
The senior Energy official would not speculate about how the Obama administration would react if Mongolia at some point refuses to renounce this type of nuclear processing, noting that the Asian nation has a long way to go before its atomic energy plans solidify.
"The U.S. holds all the cards really," Lyman said. "A '123' agreement with Mongolia should be seen as a privilege to Mongolia and not something in which they can dictate all the terms."
Calling nuclear trade pacts "one of the most potent tools the U.S. has" in helping restrict global proliferation, he added, "The administration should not lose sight of the original goal, which is to stop the spread of fuel-cycle facilities to countries that don't have them."