Royce: White House in ‘Dramatic Retreat’ from Security Norms in Nuclear Trade

Students look at a model of a Russian nuclear power plant at a 2012 international exhibition in Hanoi. Some U.S. House lawmakers on Thursday voiced reservations about a nuclear-trade pact the Obama administration has signed with Vietnam.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
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Elaine M. Grossman
July 10, 2014, 11 a.m.

The chair­man of a key House com­mit­tee on Thursday charged that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is gut­ting non­pro­lif­er­a­tion norms in its ne­go­ti­at­ing stance to­ward Ir­an, es­pe­cially in light of its policy ap­proach to­ward ink­ing nuc­le­ar trade agree­ments else­where around the world.

“For an ad­min­is­tra­tion that has held out non­pro­lif­er­a­tion as a sig­na­ture is­sue,” its nuc­le­ar-trade ne­go­ti­at­ing policy “is a dra­mat­ic re­treat from the so-called gold stand­ard, the gold stand­ard policy un­der which coun­tries were pressed to forgo ac­quir­ing “¦ po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous tech­no­lo­gies,” Rep­res­ent­at­ive Ed Royce (R-Cal­if.) said at a com­mit­tee hear­ing.

“In Novem­ber,” he said, “the ad­min­is­tra­tion con­ceded that Ir­an will be al­lowed to re­tain a urani­um en­rich­ment cap­ab­il­ity, a bomb-mak­ing ca­pa­city, in any fi­nal deal. That is the ef­fect­ive melt­ing of the gold stand­ard.”

A State De­part­ment spokes­man coined the term “gold stand­ard” in 2009 to de­scribe a nuc­le­ar co­oper­a­tion agree­ment the Obama team had just rene­go­ti­ated with the United Ar­ab Emir­ates, form­al­iz­ing the Per­sian Gulf na­tion’s pledge to ab­stain from do­mest­ic­ally pro­du­cing nuc­le­ar fuel.

Ir­an is in the midst of ne­go­ti­at­ing with world powers po­ten­tial con­straints on its nuc­le­ar en­ergy pro­gram — which oth­ers sus­pect could lead to a nuc­le­ar-bomb ca­pa­city — in ex­change for re­lief from in­ter­na­tion­al eco­nom­ic sanc­tions.

Tehran of­fi­cials in­sist they should be able to con­tin­ue some level of urani­um en­rich­ment for civil-en­ergy and re­search needs — a de­mand that the West may yet ac­cept.

But non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ad­voc­ates worry that a con­ces­sion on this point could set a dan­ger­ous pre­ced­ent that may lead to ad­di­tion­al such fuel-mak­ing world­wide and ul­ti­mately a great­er spread of nuc­le­ar arms.

In­flu­en­tial Wash­ing­ton law­makers from both parties have em­braced the idea of du­plic­at­ing a gold-stand­ard prom­ise in fu­ture atom­ic co­oper­a­tion pacts with oth­er coun­tries world­wide, po­ten­tially as a key tool in pre­vent­ing nuc­le­ar-arms pro­lif­er­a­tion.

They ar­gue that the United States should press its pro­spect­ive nuc­le­ar trade part­ners harder to fore­go en­rich­ing urani­um or re­pro­cessing plutoni­um — two civil en­ergy pro­cesses that could feed in­to mak­ing il­li­cit nuc­le­ar bombs — in ex­change for re­ceiv­ing ac­cess to U.S. re­act­or tech­no­lo­gies, sens­it­ive nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als and know-how.

Fol­low­ing sev­er­al years of in­tern­al re­view on how best to stanch arms pro­lif­er­a­tion while sup­port­ing the U.S. atom­ic in­dustry de­sire to sell re­act­ors and nuc­le­ar-en­ergy ser­vices world­wide, fed­er­al lead­ers an­nounced late last year they would take a “flex­ible” ap­proach to ne­go­ti­at­ing such co­oper­a­tion pacts with for­eign part­ners.

They would de­mand a no-fuel­mak­ing pledge where pos­sible, but in some cases would agree to more per­missive nuc­le­ar ac­cords as a means of ad­van­cing U.S. in­dustry in­terests and pre­serving in­flu­ence in Wash­ing­ton’s bi­lat­er­al re­la­tion­ships, ac­cord­ing to ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials.

Rep­res­ent­at­ives Ileana Ros-Le­htin­en (R-Fla.) and Brad Sher­man (D-Cal­if.) in Decem­ber filed a bill, H.R. 3766, in­ten­ded to strengthen Con­gress’s hand in re­view­ing and ap­prov­ing nuc­le­ar-trade pacts that lack the strongest non­pro­lif­er­a­tion terms. The bill would newly re­quire a pos­it­ive vote from both the House and Sen­ate be­fore Wash­ing­ton could im­ple­ment atom­ic co­oper­a­tion ac­cords in which the gold stand­ard is waived.

The bi­par­tis­an meas­ure is based on sim­il­ar 2011 le­gis­la­tion that un­an­im­ously passed the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, but the nuc­le­ar in­dustry lob­bied against it and the pre­vi­ous bill nev­er went to the House floor for a vote.

It is un­clear wheth­er Royce will ul­ti­mately sup­port the cur­rent Ros-Le­htin­en-Sher­man le­gis­la­tion. Dur­ing the Thursday hear­ing, the com­mit­tee chair­man al­luded to a need to bal­ance what he sees as con­flict­ing U.S. ob­ject­ives in the mat­ter.

“Nuc­le­ar co­oper­a­tion agree­ments have the dual goals of ad­van­cing the U.S. non­pro­lif­er­a­tion policy and also en­han­cing op­por­tun­it­ies for the U.S. nuc­le­ar in­dustry in for­eign mar­kets,” Royce said. “Both are of great im­port­ance, but there is an un­avoid­able ten­sion between these two.”

Earli­er this year Royce in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion, co-sponsored by com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Eli­ot En­gel (D-N.Y.), aimed at tight­en­ing sanc­tions against Rus­sia and oth­er na­tions sup­port­ing Ir­an.

Royce asked hear­ing wit­nesses on Thursday to ad­dress the ques­tion of how a con­ces­sion to Ir­an that could al­low for some level of urani­um en­rich­ment might af­fect pro­lif­er­a­tion con­cerns around the globe: “The ad­min­is­tra­tion agreed up front in its ne­go­ti­ations with Ir­an that Ir­an would be able to con­tin­ue to en­rich urani­um. How can this dan­ger­ous tech­no­logy be con­ceded to a state spon­sor of ter­ror­ism?”

Henry Sokol­ski, one of three is­sue ex­perts ap­pear­ing at the House pan­el’s ses­sion, sug­ges­ted that on­go­ing nuc­le­ar-trade talks with oth­er Mideast states and else­where around the world could be af­fected by what is ul­ti­mately agreed to with Ir­an.

“[Do] Saudi Ar­a­bia, South Korea, [or] Ja­pan start re­pro­cessing? What does that do with China? Those things are go­ing to keep you up at night,” said Sokol­ski, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Policy Edu­ca­tion Cen­ter. “If we don’t up the ante and push on the oth­er sup­pli­ers to raise theirs, you know where we’re headed.”

An­oth­er wit­ness, Daniel Lip­man of the nuc­le­ar-en­ergy in­dustry’s lob­by­ing arm, said U.S. atom­ic-en­ergy com­pan­ies don’t ob­ject to in­cor­por­at­ing non­pro­lif­er­a­tion stand­ards in­to nuc­le­ar trade pacts, but feel each ne­go­ti­ation must be ap­proached on a case-by-case basis.

“The in­dustry is not against the gold stand­ard,” said Lip­man, the Nuc­le­ar En­ergy In­sti­tute’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or for sup­pli­er pro­grams. “The in­dustry is against uni­ver­sal ap­plic­a­tion of one-size-fits-all policy.”

He ad­ded: “When there is a uni­ver­sal ap­plic­a­tion of a stand­ard, when coun­tries op­er­ate in dif­fer­ent re­gions [and] they have vary­ing areas of ex­pert­ise “¦ in their nuc­le­ar power pro­grams do­mest­ic­ally, a one-size-fits-all policy is just not work­able. And it ex­cludes Amer­ic­an com­pan­ies from provid­ing the tech­no­logy that “¦ would bet­ter serve U.S. in­terests.”

The House hear­ing also touched on a spe­cif­ic U.S. atom­ic-trade agree­ment with Vi­et­nam, which is now pending be­fore Con­gress for re­view. Un­der cur­rent law, this pact and oth­ers like it can simply pro­ceed in­to im­ple­ment­a­tion after 90 days of con­tinu­ous ses­sion, un­less law­makers act to stop them.

Sev­er­al com­mit­tee mem­bers voiced con­cern about the bi­lat­er­al Vi­et­nam agree­ment’s lack of a bind­ing gold stand­ard, even if Hanoi’s “in­tent” not to pro­duce fuel do­mest­ic­ally is con­tained in a non-en­force­able pre­amble. The agree­ment also ef­fect­ively con­tains no end date, a de­par­ture from the usu­al 30-year term that past nuc­le­ar-trade ac­cords have in­cor­por­ated.

Ros-Le­htin­en said she would “strongly op­pose” the Vi­et­nam pact, based on its lack of a bind­ing no-fuel­mak­ing pro­vi­sion and what she called Hanoi’s “abysmal hu­man rights re­cord.”

“We can­not ex­am­ine these agree­ments in a va­cu­um,” she said. “When these 123 agree­ments are pro­posed, we must take in­to ac­count our for­eign policy and na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests, as well as a coun­try’s hu­man rights re­cord.”

The term “123” refers to the sec­tion of the U.S. Atom­ic En­ergy Act that gov­erns nuc­le­ar-trade pacts.

In re­sponse to a ques­tion from Rep­res­ent­at­ive Ted Poe (R-Texas), all three ex­pert wit­nesses — to in­clude Le­onard Spect­or, who heads the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies’ Wash­ing­ton of­fice — agreed that at least a 30-year time lim­it for the Vi­et­nam pact and oth­er such ac­cords makes sense.

Lip­man said the in­dustry has “no quar­rel” with a 30-year lim­it­a­tion rather than auto­mat­ic ex­ten­sions, as the Vi­et­nam pact would in­volve. Both he and Spect­or noted that pre­dict­ab­il­ity is a key is­sue for the U.S. nuc­le­ar in­dustry.

Sokol­ski said giv­ing nuc­le­ar pacts end dates also would help lever­age U.S. in­flu­ence, with spe­cif­ics de­pend­ing on the hu­man rights and se­cur­ity re­cords of the par­tic­u­lar ne­go­ti­at­ing part­ner in­volved.

“If you dis­trust, you need to do more veri­fic­a­tion; there­fore, you want more fre­quent rene­go­ti­ation,” he said. “If you trust, you need less.”

Sher­man sug­ges­ted that the Vi­et­nam pact of­fers an ex­ample of the prob­lems he sees in the level of con­gres­sion­al re­view of nuc­le­ar-trade agree­ments gen­er­ally.

“So-called 123 agree­ments, in­clud­ing the Vi­et­nam agree­ment which is now sit­ting be­fore Con­gress, need to be de­lib­er­ated more than is the cur­rent prac­tice,” said Sher­man, who serves as rank­ing mem­ber of the pan­el’s Ter­ror­ism, Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion and Trade Sub­com­mit­tee. “The cur­rent law puts Con­gress not in the driver’s seat, not as a co-equal branch of gov­ern­ment, not in the back­seat, but in the trunk when it comes to de­cid­ing what our policy will be on nuc­le­ar co­oper­a­tion agree­ments.”

The cur­rent law — lack­ing a re­quire­ment for an af­firm­at­ive vote of Con­gress — “is an af­front to the doc­trines that un­der­lie the First Art­icle of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion,” Sher­man de­clared. “It is not mean­ing­ful re­view.”

Spect­or noted that ab­sent a change in law re­gard­ing con­gres­sion­al re­view and ap­prov­al au­thor­ity over nuc­le­ar trade pacts, Cap­it­ol Hill could ef­fect­ively put the brakes on im­ple­ment­a­tion of a par­tic­u­lar agree­ment by passing a bill to freeze li­cens­ing of atom­ic ex­ports to a na­tion.

“This was done with China and I think they were on hold for quite a num­ber of years,” he said, not­ing Wash­ing­ton’s ob­jec­tions at the time to Beijing’s mis­sile trans­fers abroad. “It’s not el­eg­ant and it’s not easy to do, but it is a tool that’s avail­able.”

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