Can you stop the bomb's spread by making it easier to cut nuclear deals?
Is the best way to limit the spread of nuclear weapons actually to loosen restrictions on atomic energy deals around the world?
That’s the counterintuitive policy prescription currently being debated by the Congress, the White House, the nuclear industry, and anti-proliferation activists. At stake is the U.S. role as a leading supplier of nuclear technology and components, and perhaps the Obama administration’s stated goals of curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The whole issue has taken on added urgency thanks to the nuclear talks with Iran, whose pursuit of nuclear technologies began, and purportedly continues today, under the guise of civilian uses.
The U.S. wants to promote the use of nuclear energy for power generation –it’s the only large-scale way to generate electricity without emitting greenhouse gases — and give a boost to the U.S. nuclear industry overseas. But it also wants to limit the risks of nuclear proliferation by, say, limiting the number of countries that can enrich uranium from the low levels needed for power generation to the higher levels needed for weapons.
To square that circle, Washington is hoping to sign (or renew) civilian nuclear cooperation deals with a spate of countries from South Korea to Saudi Arabia. For example, this week negotiators from the U.S. and South Korea sat down to try to bridge the gap dividing what Seoul wants and what Washington is prepared to offer, in order to renew a nuclear power accord that dates back to 1972. They’ll try again in April.
Those deals, known as 123 accords after the section of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act that made them possible, usually come loaded with a host of restrictions on what the recipient country can and cannot do with American-made nuclear technology and materials. Talks to renew the deal with South Korea, for example, are hung up over the question of uranium enrichment: Seoul wants advance consent from the U.S. to enrich nuclear fuel, to bolster its own nuclear-export industry; Washington doesn’t want another country enriching uranium, even a close ally, and especially when it still aims for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
And that’s the rub. When American nuclear technology was the only game in town, Washington could ladle all sorts of restrictions on deals with other countries and still win business. But America isn’t any longer the dominant supplier in the nuclear business, as it was in the Eisenhower years. France, Russia, China, and South Korea are all becoming suppliers of choice — without so many strings attached. (Meanwhile, international sales of U.S. reactors and nuclear components amounted to a relatively-measly $1.4 billion from 2009 to 2012.) Amid the global rush to build nuclear reactors, plenty of folks in Washington are worried — not about another Fukushima-style meltdown, but rather out of concern that nuclear energy proliferation can lead to nuclear weapons proliferation.
"Everybody is getting access to nuclear materials, is coming within arms’ reach of weapons. Is that what we want?" asks Victor Gilinsky, a former commissioner on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and now a nuclear consultant.
Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Brad Sherman (D-CA) re-introduced legislation in December that would increase congressional oversight of U.S. nuclear deals abroad and build in non-proliferation clauses into future agreements, such as a ban on uranium enrichment in recipient countries. "This legislation will encourage the adoption of strong nonproliferation provisions in our nuclear cooperation agreements and encourage governments to forgo the most dangerous technologies," said Sherman when it was introduced.
Supporters of the legislation say it’s important because U.S. nuclear diplomacy goes far beyond merely helping other countries generate more electricity.
"These nuclear accords are serious agreements with enormous knock-on effects down the line. People used to think it was just about boiling water, but we know better now — Iran has taught us that," Henry Sokolski, a leading anti-proliferation advocate and executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told Foreign Policy.
Predictably, the proposed legislation has the U.S. nuclear industry up in arms. The industry maintains that U.S. nuclear suppliers must be able to compete with other countries that put few restrictions on potential buyers, such as Russia’s state-owned Rosatom, which is building nearly a score of reactors around the world.
Further, the nuclear industry contends that placing restrictions on what third countries can do with U.S.-provided nuclear materials and technology is actually counter-productive to non-proliferation goals, because it pushes American best practices and culture to the sidelines.
"U.S. nuclear trade policy is still stuck back in this 1980s-style vision of the world," Carol Berrigan, a senior director at industry trade group Nuclear Energy Institute, told FP. "The U.S. is definitely still very competitive in the global market, but we really are to a certain extent hamstrung, and if things continue the way they look to be going with congressional oversight, we’ll continue to be put at an increasingly more significant disadvantage."
"If you look at how we influence non-proliferation globally, it’s been largely through commercial engagement," she added.
"We would argue that you transfer your safety and non-proliferation culture with your technology. Is the world a safer place with U.S. safety features and culture?" added Paul Genoa, another NEI director.
Caught in the middle has been the White House, which has been trying to strike a balance between promoting nuclear power and non-proliferation for years. In 2009, the U.S. reached a commercial nuclear deal with the United Arab Emirates, in which the Gulf nation foreswore enriching uranium for nuclear fuel. Tabbed the "gold standard" of nuclear pacts, the agreement became, in the eyes of non-proliferation advocates, the model for future deals with other countries.
Except that it didn’t. Not all countries are prepared to permanently waive rights, such as the ability to enrich uranium, that are enshrined in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. South Korea, for instance, wants the right to enrich U.S.-supplied uranium as part of the renewal of its own nuclear deal. Jordan, which rebuffed a deal with the U.S., has dreams of becoming a regional nuclear fuel supplier. And Vietnam would only make non-binding political commitments regarding enrichment in its own nuclear accord with the U.S., inking a deal with Russia and Japan, in the meantime, to build its first reactors.
The Obama administration has moved away from the idea of a "gold standard," if one ever actually existed, and is now embracing civilian nuclear deals on a case-by-case basis. Administration officials say that flexibility is the best way to make sure that the U.S. can compete with foreign suppliers, and that U.S. nuclear know-how and culture stay prominent in the market.
"High standards of non-proliferation are achieved when we have a robust nuclear export industry, and our nuclear export industry is robust when we have strong non-proliferation technologies," a senior administration official told FP.
"Other countries don’t have those stringent requirements, so we need to make sure that we don’t have countries choosing the low road just because it’s easier for them."