Obama Sends Vietnam Nuclear Trade Pact to Congress

A student photographs a model of a Russian nuclear power plant on display at an international nuclear power exhibition held in Hanoi in October 2012. The White House is poised to submit a U.S.-Vietnamese nuclear trade agreement to Congress for review.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
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Elaine M. Grossman
May 8, 2014, 7:57 a.m.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion on Thursday sub­mit­ted to Con­gress a nuc­le­ar trade ac­cord with Vi­et­nam after a re­por­ted Tues­day sign­ing ce­re­mony. The pact could po­ten­tially pro­ceed in­to force later this year.

The 30-year bi­lat­er­al agree­ment — un­der which the United States could share nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als, tech­no­lo­gies and in­form­a­tion with the South­east Asi­an na­tion — could be im­ple­men­ted if law­makers do not act to block it with­in 90 days of con­tinu­ous le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion.

Con­gres­sion­al sources said the doc­u­ment was signed earli­er this week. Hanoi’s of­fi­cial news agency re­leased a photo show­ing a Tues­day sign­ing ce­re­mony between Min­is­ter of Sci­ence and Tech­no­logy Nguy­en Quan and U.S. Am­bas­sad­or to Vi­et­nam Dav­id Shear.

Typ­ic­ally such nuc­le­ar trade pacts between Wash­ing­ton and oth­er cap­it­als around the globe go for­ward with few U.S. law­makers even tak­ing no­tice.

This first-ever nuc­le­ar ac­cord ty­ing the United States to Vi­et­nam could be dif­fer­ent, though.

Some power­ful mem­bers of the House and Sen­ate have raised con­cerns about re­ward­ing Hanoi when it has a spotty hu­man rights re­cord. Nu­mer­ous non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ex­perts and law­makers from both sides of the aisle also have cri­ti­cized the U.S.-Vi­et­nam pact for lack­ing bind­ing pro­vi­sions aimed at pre­vent­ing Vi­et­nam from un­der­tak­ing sens­it­ive nuc­le­ar fuel-mak­ing activ­it­ies that could con­trib­ute to build­ing nuc­le­ar weapons.

At a late-Janu­ary hear­ing, for ex­ample, Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez (D-N.J.) de­man­ded to know why Wash­ing­ton ac­cep­ted a polit­ic­al side note with Vi­et­nam in­dic­at­ing that Hanoi would not en­rich urani­um or re­pro­cess plutoni­um do­mest­ic­ally, rather than in­sert that “im­port­ant state­ment in­to a bind­ing part of the agree­ment.”

“I’d like to have an an­swer to that,” said the chair­man, backed by a num­ber of pan­el Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats.

Men­en­dez said he might al­low the Vi­et­nam pact to pro­ceed, but only if it is ac­com­pan­ied by “a par­al­lel res­ol­u­tion on hu­man rights as part of our com­pre­hens­ive part­ner­ship un­der­stand­ing.”

U.S. nuc­le­ar lob­by­ists — sup­por­ted by some law­makers and non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ad­voc­ates — say that Wash­ing­ton would re­tain more pos­it­ive in­flu­ence with na­tions de­vel­op­ing their own atom­ic-power cap­ab­il­it­ies if it helps fa­cil­it­ate their work.

“If you look at the Vi­et­nam of 15 years ago and you look at Vi­et­nam today, it’s a dra­mat­ic­ally changed na­tion,” Sen­at­or John Mc­Cain (R-Ar­iz.) said at the Jan. 30 com­mit­tee hear­ing. “This agree­ment is an­oth­er step in what has evolved in­to a part­ner­ship between the United States and Vi­et­nam.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has de­lib­er­ated in­tern­ally over its nuc­le­ar trade and non­pro­lif­er­a­tion policy for years, lead­ing to some dra­mat­ic splits between seni­or En­ergy and State de­part­ment of­fi­cials, among oth­ers.

Last year, the White House con­cluded it would take what of­fi­cials call a “flex­ible” policy to­ward ne­go­ti­ations on atom­ic co­oper­a­tion pacts, de­mand­ing only in se­lec­ted cases that glob­al part­ners prom­ise not to pro­duce their own nuc­le­ar fuel in ex­change for Wash­ing­ton’s nuc­le­ar bless­ing.

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