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
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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.”

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