Bipartisan Bill Filed to Heighten Oversight of U.S. Nuclear Trade

Visitors study a model nuclear reactor for power plants on display at an international atomic energy exhibition in Hanoi in October 2012. A U.S. House Republican and Democrat introduced legislation that would increase congressional oversight of nuclear trade agreements on the eve of Secretary of State John Kerry's trip to Vietnam to sign one such accord.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
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Elaine M. Grossman
Dec. 13, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

House law­makers on Fri­day offered a bill aimed at ad­dress­ing con­cerns that White House nuc­le­ar trade policy risks the fur­ther spread of il­li­cit weapons.

Rep­res­ent­at­ives Ileana Ros-Le­htin­en (R-Fla.) and Brad Sher­man (D-Cal­if.) in­tro­duced H.R. 3766, a bill they say would “pro­tect against the threat of nuc­le­ar pro­lif­er­a­tion.”

Ac­cord­ing to a Fri­day news re­lease, the pair — both of whom hold pan­el lead­er­ship po­s­i­tions on the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee — in­tend to use the meas­ure to re­form the 1954 Atom­ic En­ergy Act in a way that would in­crease con­gres­sion­al over­sight of U.S. nuc­le­ar co­oper­a­tion agree­ments with for­eign na­tions. The United States has many such bi­lat­er­al ac­cords — which give for­eign cap­it­als ac­cess to U.S. nuc­le­ar en­ergy tech­no­logy, ma­ter­i­als and know-how — and Wash­ing­ton is eye­ing ad­di­tion­al agree­ments with coun­tries in­clud­ing Saudi Ar­a­bia, Jordan and Malay­sia.

Un­der cur­rent law, these nuc­le­ar trade pacts can be im­ple­men­ted if Con­gress fails to stop them after 90 days of con­tinu­ous le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion.

The newly in­tro­duced meas­ure — based on 2011 le­gis­la­tion in­tro­duced by Ros-Le­htin­en that nev­er made it to a House floor vote — would al­low only those ac­cords that in­clude the strict­est non­pro­lif­er­a­tion meas­ures to qual­i­fy for this fast-track treat­ment. Al­tern­at­ively, those that leave open the pos­sib­il­ity that a part­ner na­tion might do­mest­ic­ally pro­duce nuc­le­ar fuel — run­ning a po­ten­tial risk the ma­ter­i­al could be di­ver­ted for an il­li­cit bomb-mak­ing ef­fort — would re­quire ap­prov­al by both cham­bers of Con­gress.

Sen­at­or Ed­ward Mar­key (D-Mass.) also an­nounced this week that he would in­tro­duce sim­il­ar le­gis­la­tion in the up­per cham­ber.

“With the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion agree­ing to an Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar deal that is fraught with prob­lems that un­der­mine years of painstak­ing ef­forts to pre­vent Tehran from ac­quir­ing nuc­le­ar ca­pa­city, it’s more im­port­ant than ever for Con­gress to have more over­sight over nuc­le­ar co­oper­a­tion agree­ments with oth­er coun­tries,” Ros-Le­htin­en, who chairs the House For­eign Af­fairs Sub­com­mit­tee on the Middle East and North Africa, said in a writ­ten state­ment.

Said Sher­man, rank­ing minor­ity mem­ber on the Sub­com­mit­tee on Ter­ror­ism, Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion and Trade: “This le­gis­la­tion will en­cour­age the ad­op­tion of strong non­pro­lif­er­a­tion pro­vi­sions in our nuc­le­ar co­oper­a­tion agree­ments and en­cour­age gov­ern­ments to forgo the most dan­ger­ous tech­no­lo­gies. At the same time, this bill will also en­cour­age the ad­op­tion of the li­ab­il­ity pro­tec­tions ne­ces­sary for U.S. com­pan­ies to com­pete.”

Mar­key is work­ing with Ros-Le­htin­en on a Sen­ate ver­sion of the same bill that “would en­sure that any new or amended nuc­le­ar co­oper­a­tion agree­ment that does not con­tain a prom­ise to for­swear the de­vel­op­ment of tech­no­lo­gies that could provide the in­gredi­ents for a nuc­le­ar bomb would have to be af­firm­at­ively voted on by Con­gress be­fore it can go in­to ef­fect,” an aide in the up­per cham­ber told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire on Thursday. The staffer was not au­thor­ized to speak pub­licly on the mat­ter and re­ques­ted an­onym­ity.

Mar­key’s bill will be in­tro­duced in the Sen­ate “soon,” po­ten­tially with both Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic co-spon­sors, ac­cord­ing to the aide. The Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted to be in ses­sion in­to next week be­fore re­cess­ing for the hol­i­days.

The sen­at­or this week sug­ges­ted that Wash­ing­ton should deny ac­cess to sens­it­ive U.S. nuc­le­ar tech­no­lo­gies and ser­vices to those na­tions in­ter­ested in keep­ing open the op­tion to en­rich urani­um or re­pro­cess plutoni­um.

“We should not pro­ceed down a dan­ger­ous nuc­le­ar path with any coun­try that re­fuses to make a leg­ally bind­ing com­mit­ment not to de­vel­op the tech­no­lo­gies used to make nuc­le­ar weapons ma­ter­i­als,” Mar­key said in a state­ment provided to GSN.

The U.S. nuc­le­ar in­dustry, which strongly op­posed Ros-Le­htin­en’s 2011 le­gis­la­tion, jumped to de­nounce the new House bill as soon as the Flor­ida and Cali­for­nia con­gress­men offered it this week. 

“H.R. 3766 is mis­guided le­gis­la­tion that should be shelved,” said Richard My­ers, vice pres­id­ent for policy de­vel­op­ment, plan­ning and sup­pli­er pro­grams at the Nuc­le­ar En­ergy In­sti­tute, the in­dustry’s lob­by­ing arm. “If this le­gis­la­tion were en­acted, it would fur­ther isol­ate the United States from the grow­ing in­ter­na­tion­al mar­ket­place — where our pre-em­in­ence in ci­vil­ian nuc­le­ar tech­no­lo­gies has long since faded — by uni­lat­er­ally es­tab­lish­ing new terms for U.S. nuc­le­ar en­ergy co­oper­a­tion and trade that many pro­spect­ive part­ner coun­tries have already re­jec­ted.”

In a writ­ten state­ment is­sued on Fri­day, My­ers ad­ded: “We un­der­stand and share con­cerns about re­cent de­vel­op­ments in Ir­an, but this pro­pos­al will have no im­pact on Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram, nor will it es­tab­lish any dis­in­cent­ives for rogue na­tions that choose to pur­sue clandes­tine nuc­le­ar weapons pro­grams. The United States already has a broad set of policy in­stru­ments that lim­it the spread of en­rich­ment and re­pro­cessing tech­no­lo­gies that could be used to de­vel­op weapons.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion on Thursday un­veiled the res­ults of a years-long in­tern­al policy re­view on how best to curb pro­lif­er­a­tion as it en­gages in nuc­le­ar trade world­wide. As first re­por­ted by GSN, the State and En­ergy de­part­ments will con­tin­ue a “flex­ible” ne­go­ti­at­ing policy that may or may not de­mand a trade in­ter­locutor’s pledge to avoid en­rich­ment and re­pro­cessing — re­pris­ing an earli­er ap­proach that the Obama team dubbed “case by case.”

Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry is ex­pec­ted to sign a new nuc­le­ar trade deal with Vi­et­nam next week in which the South­east Asi­an coun­try of­fers a less-than-bind­ing in­dic­a­tion that it would use for­eign fuel to power its for­eign-built re­act­ors, rather than en­rich or re­pro­cess on its own.

This art­icle was pub­lished in Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, which is pro­duced in­de­pend­ently by Na­tion­al Journ­al Group un­der con­tract with the Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive. NTI is a non­profit, non­par­tis­an group work­ing to re­duce glob­al threats from nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al, and chem­ic­al weapons.

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