U.S. Senate Panel Backs Vietnam Nuclear Trade Pact, But Tightens Conditions

Students look at a model of a Russian nuclear power plant on display at an international nuclear power exhibition held in Hanoi in 2012. A U.S. Senate committee on Tuesday endorsed a new U.S. accord to cooperate with Vietnam on its atomic energy program, but moved to limit it and most future pacts to 30-year duration.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
Add to Briefcase
Elaine M. Grossman
July 23, 2014, 10:55 a.m.

A key Sen­ate com­mit­tee on Tues­day en­dorsed a U.S. nuc­le­ar trade pact with Vi­et­nam, but con­strained its length to 30 years and ad­ded new re­quire­ments for most such fu­ture pacts.

The joint res­ol­u­tion, offered by Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez, passed in a bi­par­tis­an voice vote in an af­ter­noon busi­ness meet­ing of the pan­el.

As ne­go­ti­ated by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, the new agree­ment to al­low U.S. nuc­le­ar tech­no­lo­gies, atom­ic ma­ter­i­als and tech­no­lo­gic­al know-how to be shared with Vi­et­nam could be auto­mat­ic­ally ex­ten­ded — a de­par­ture from typ­ic­al past prac­tice with Wash­ing­ton’s trade part­ners that has troubled some law­makers.

The com­mit­tee-passed meas­ure was based on sim­il­ar le­gis­la­tion the New Jer­sey Demo­crat offered in May, re­flect­ing con­cerns the law­maker and oth­ers on Cap­it­ol Hill have raised about Hanoi’s re­fus­al to guar­an­tee that it would not pro­duce nuc­le­ar fuel as it un­der­takes its new civil atom­ic en­ergy pro­gram. Urani­um en­rich­ment or plutoni­um re­pro­cessing can be un­der­taken as part of peace­ful atom­ic en­ergy ef­forts, but these activ­it­ies some­times raise fears about their po­ten­tial to pro­duce fuel for il­li­cit nuc­le­ar bombs.

Vi­et­nam did state in a non-bind­ing pre­amble to the ac­cord that it would not en­rich or re­pro­cess on its own soil. But some non­pro­lif­er­a­tion pro­ponents see the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­qui­es­cence on the mat­ter as a dis­ap­point­ing pre­ced­ent as world powers labor to rein in Ir­an’s en­rich­ment ef­forts — on sus­pi­cions they are in part aimed at at­tain­ing a bomb-build­ing ca­pa­city — and stanch the spread of atom­ic arms else­where around the globe.

The com­mit­tee chair­man’s le­gis­la­tion, as ini­tially offered in May, con­tained the 30-year cap for most U.S. nuc­le­ar co­oper­a­tion agree­ments — a lim­it­a­tion that does not ap­pear to be gen­er­at­ing much push­back from the atom­ic en­ergy in­dustry. Daniel Lip­man of the Nuc­le­ar En­ergy In­sti­tute — the in­dustry’s lob­by­ing arm — said at a re­cent House hear­ing that his group has “no quar­rel” with the idea of a 30-year dur­a­tion rather than the more in­def­in­ite peri­od that the Vi­et­nam pact would in­volve. He em­phas­ized pre­dict­ab­il­ity as more of a cent­ral con­cern for the U.S. nuc­le­ar in­dustry.

At the same time, Men­en­dez altered his ini­tial le­gis­la­tion slightly to ac­com­mod­ate a de­sire by minor­ity mem­bers of his com­mit­tee to fur­ther strengthen its non­pro­lif­er­a­tion fea­tures, Sen­ate aides said in Tues­day in­ter­views.

A key ad­di­tion was to de­mand that nuc­le­ar pro­lif­er­a­tion as­sess­ments the State De­part­ment sub­mits to Cap­it­ol Hill about pro­spect­ive nuc­le­ar co­oper­a­tion part­ner na­tions now in­clude more ex­tens­ive de­tails, ac­cord­ing to staffers who asked to re­main un­named be­cause they were not au­thor­ized to dis­cuss the mat­ter pub­licly.

Those in­clude “an as­sess­ment of the ad­equacy of safe­guards” and “peace­ful use as­sur­ances con­tained in the agree­ment” to “en­sure that any [U.S.] as­sist­ance … will not be used to fur­ther any mil­it­ary or nuc­le­ar ex­plos­ive pur­pose”; a re­view of any “past pro­lif­er­a­tion activ­ity of the co­oper­at­ing party, or sus­pect activ­ity iden­ti­fied by … the in­tel­li­gence com­munity” about “all activ­it­ies that are po­ten­tially in­con­sist­ent with a peace­ful nuc­le­ar pro­gram and any po­ten­tial de­liv­ery mech­an­isms”; “a com­par­is­on of the agree­ment to oth­er ex­ist­ing civil nuc­le­ar co­oper­a­tion agree­ments between the United States and oth­er states in the re­gion”; and “an as­sess­ment of the stra­tegic, se­cur­ity, sta­bil­ity, and re­gion­al con­sid­er­a­tions throughout the ne­go­ti­ation of this agree­ment.”

Sen­ate staffers said the bi­par­tis­an back­ing for the le­gis­la­tion in com­mit­tee might al­low it to be “hot­lined” in­to a floor vote be­fore the cham­ber breaks for a pos­sible Au­gust re­cess. That tim­ing could per­mit Con­gress to af­fect the terms of the Vi­et­nam agree­ment pri­or to end of a set peri­od of le­gis­lat­ive re­view of the pact, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts.

It is un­clear when or if the House will pass sim­il­ar le­gis­la­tion en­dors­ing or lim­it­ing the terms of the U.S.-Vi­et­nam agree­ment, which the ad­min­is­tra­tion sub­mit­ted to Con­gress on May 8. Un­der law, the le­gis­lat­ive branch has 90 days of con­tinu­ous ses­sion to re­view nuc­le­ar co­oper­a­tion ac­cords.

However, neither Sen­ate nor House ac­tion is re­quired on this type of pact. The United States could pro­ceed to im­ple­ment the Vi­et­nam deal if Con­gress has not passed le­gis­la­tion to lim­it or stop it pri­or to the end of the re­view peri­od.

It was un­clear this week wheth­er Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id (D-Nev.) would enter the cham­ber in­to re­cess dur­ing Au­gust. If there is no re­cess, then the 90 days would come to a close on Aug. 6, al­low­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion to move ahead with the agree­ment, ac­cord­ing to Con­gress-watch­ers.

If Cap­it­ol Hill does break for re­cess, that could ef­fect­ively give law­makers ad­di­tion­al time in­to early Septem­ber to send le­gis­la­tion to the White House af­fect­ing the Vi­et­nam pact, if they so choose, sources said.

“There’s no ques­tion that the 30-year cap and [nuc­le­ar pro­lif­er­a­tion as­sess­ment] pro­vi­sions would pass if they came to a [Sen­ate] vote,” Henry Sokol­ski, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Policy Edu­ca­tion Cen­ter, said in e-mailed re­sponses to ques­tions. “It’s un­clear, however, if the chair­man’s amend­ment will ever reach the floor.”

“The bi­par­tis­an nature of the [Men­en­dez] com­mit­tee vote au­gurs well for Sen­ate sup­port,” agreed Miles Pom­per of the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies on Wed­nes­day. “But giv­en the fail­ure of Con­gress to pass any le­gis­la­tion these days and the up­com­ing cam­paign sea­son, I wouldn’t bet on a joint res­ol­u­tion mak­ing its way to the pres­id­ent.”

For his part, House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ed Royce held a hear­ing earli­er this month at which he charged the Obama team with a “dra­mat­ic re­treat” from “the gold stand­ard policy un­der which coun­tries were pressed to forgo ac­quir­ing “¦ po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous tech­no­lo­gies.”

But the Cali­for­nia Re­pub­lic­an to date has not taken a pub­lic po­s­i­tion on the Vi­et­nam agree­ment spe­cific­ally. It was un­clear wheth­er he or oth­er House law­makers would work with their Sen­ate coun­ter­parts on Men­en­dez’s joint res­ol­u­tion, or prefer in­stead to al­low the Vi­et­nam pact to pro­ceed un­hindered.

Few if any is­sue ex­perts an­ti­cip­ate that the South Asi­an na­tion has an in­ten­tion of de­vel­op­ing nuc­le­ar arms in the fore­see­able fu­ture.

That has not stopped Rep­res­ent­at­ive Ileana Ros-Le­htin­en (R-Fla.), Royce’s im­me­di­ate pre­de­cessor as com­mit­tee chair­man, from de­clar­ing at the Ju­ly 10 House com­mit­tee hear­ing that she would “strongly op­pose” the agree­ment with Hanoi. She voiced con­cerns about the ab­sence of a bind­ing no-fuel­mak­ing pro­vi­sion and what she termed Vi­et­nam’s “abysmal hu­man rights re­cord.”

Ac­cord­ing to sources, Ros-Le­htin­en has con­sidered of­fer­ing le­gis­la­tion aimed at stop­ping or al­ter­ing the terms of the U.S.-Vi­et­nam ac­cord, but by press time no meas­ure had yet gone for­ward.

“What ex­actly the House will do is yet to be be de­term­ined,” Sokol­ski said. “The be­gin­ning of this pro­cess in the Sen­ate has ended but we’re quite a ways still from the end. I think the le­gis­lat­ive drama on nuc­le­ar co­oper­a­tion has just be­gun.”

Back at Tues­day’s Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee ses­sion, two amend­ments aimed at mak­ing Wash­ing­ton’s fu­ture nuc­le­ar-co­oper­a­tion deals with for­eign gov­ern­ments more pro­lif­er­a­tion-res­ist­ant failed to pass.

One offered by Sen­at­or Bob Cork­er (R-Tenn.) would have ad­ded a new con­di­tion un­der the U.S. Atom­ic En­ergy Act that would have ef­fect­ively re­quired an af­firm­at­ive vote of Con­gress be­fore any nuc­le­ar-co­oper­a­tion pact could pro­ceed, un­less a part­ner na­tion agreed not to be­gin en­rich­ing or re­pro­cessing. While some cham­ber staffers said Cork­er — the pan­el’s rank­ing mem­ber — had lined up sig­ni­fic­ant sup­port for the meas­ure among fel­low GOP sen­at­ors on the pan­el, the amend­ment went down on a voice vote.

Men­en­dez was among those op­pos­ing Cork­er’s pro­posed pro­vi­sions, sources said. While the chair­man has spoken in fa­vor of main­tain­ing a strong U.S. nuc­le­ar-trade stand­ard aimed at stem­ming glob­al en­rich­ment and re­pro­cessing, he re­portedly voiced con­cern at the Tues­day com­mit­tee meet­ing that adding such a rider to the joint res­ol­u­tion might jeop­ard­ize its ul­ti­mate pas­sage by Con­gress.

An­oth­er amend­ment, put forth by Sen­at­or Ed Mar­key (D-Mass.), would have pro­hib­ited nuc­le­ar trade pacts from be­ing im­ple­men­ted if inked with a part­ner coun­try that with­draws from the Nuc­le­ar Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty, shows an in­tent to be­gin en­rich­ing urani­um or re­pro­cessing plutoni­um, has trans­ferred “sanc­tion­able” sens­it­ive nuc­le­ar ex­plos­ive tech­no­lo­gies to oth­er na­tions, or en­gages in oth­er sim­il­arly pro­lif­er­a­tion-wor­ri­some activ­it­ies. That meas­ure failed at com­mit­tee in an 11-5 roll call vote, re­portedly with a bi­par­tis­an mix of votes both in fa­vor and against.

Sokol­ski called the Men­en­dez le­gis­la­tion that passed com­mit­tee a “mod­est, worth­while re­form,” but cri­ti­cized it for pay­ing “no heed to the  egre­gious pre­ced­ent the Vi­et­nam deal sets by fail­ing to meet the [no-fuel­mak­ing] gold stand­ard.

“This is go­ing to greatly com­plic­ate our cur­rent ef­forts to get South Korea to drop its de­mands to re­cycle plutoni­um and to en­rich urani­um,” he said.

Mean­time, “Cork­er and Mar­key’s in­terest in these is­sues is likely to con­tin­ue,” Sokol­ski said. “What they might do be­fore the Vi­et­nam deal comes in­to force some­time be­fore Au­gust 7 … re­mains un­clear. What’s even more in­ter­est­ing is what they might do after Au­gust 7 — not about Vi­et­nam, but about the [nuc­le­ar trade-pact] gold stand­ard more gen­er­ally.”

What We're Following See More »
WIDELY DEBUNKED CLAIM
Trump: Clinton Camp Started Birtherism
12 minutes ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Donald Trump, when pressed by Lester Holt on why he finally admitted that President Obama was born in America, repeated his widely debunked claim that it was started by Hillary Clinton.

“AFRICAN AMERICANS” ARE “LIVING IN HELL”
Conversation Shifts to Race
20 minutes ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Hillary Clinton went point by point on how race can so often determine the treatment that people receive, mentioning recent shootings in Tulsa and Charlotte, calling for restored trust between communities and police, and demanding criminal justice reform. Trump responded by calling for law and order and touting his endorsements from police unions. He then said that “African Americans are living in hell,” saying they are just walking down the street and getting “shot ... being decimated by crime."

JUST AS CLINTON INVITES VIEWERS TO VISIT HER SITE
During Debate, Trump Site Appears to Be Down
37 minutes ago
THE LATEST

Just as Hillary Clinton was inviting debate viewers to visit her site for real-time fact checking, there appeared to be a problem with Donald Trump's own campaign website. For about a 15-minute period, a blank page or an error message appeared when we tried to load the Trump site.

INTERRUPTS CLINTON MULTIPLE TIMES
Trump Comes Out Swinging
50 minutes ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Donald Trump has come out in the first segment of this debate raring to go. Trump has interrupted nearly every answer being given by Hillary Clinton, talking over her time and again. Clinton is sticking to her guns, smiling while Trump speaks and then calling on people to go to her website and see the fact checking being done.

AMERICA IS A “PIGGY BANK”
Clinton Opens Positive, Trump Mentions Difficulties
1 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Each candidate opened the debate sticking to their campaign's script. Hillary Clinton opened with a call for how to affect the future while Donald Trump spoke about many of the plights being faced by American workers today. Clinton discussed innovation, helping small business, and equal pay for women. Trump, in turn, discussed how jobs are leaving America, calling our country the "piggy bank" for other nations.

×