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Sensitive nuclear technologies and US nuclear export agreements

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green - Nuclear Monitor editor

US business groups are lobbying the US government to limit the negotiation of bilateral nuclear trade agreements (known as Section 123 agreements under the 1954 Atomic Energy Act [1]) containing clauses banning the development of sensitive nuclear technologies (SNT) − uranium enrichment and nuclear reprocessing. SNT can be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons − highly enriched uranium or plutonium.

The United Arab Emirates agreed not develop SNT as part of its 2009 agreement with the US.[2] However the agreement does prohibit the stockpiling of plutonium separated from spent fuel produced in reactors in the UAE and separated in another country − just as Japan stockpiles plutonium separated from spent fuel in European reprocessing plants. Moreover the agreement reportedly contains an escape clause that allows the UAE to exercise any more favourable terms that the US grants other Middle Eastern nations in subsequent nuclear trade pacts.

The Obama administration dubbed the UAE agreement the "gold standard" for future agreements around the world. There has been an ongoing debate as to whether the "gold standard" SNT ban should be a condition of all future US nuclear agreements or whether it should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The Obama administration is currently undertaking its third successive internal review of the matter.[3] Some have suggested a compromise − US negotiators would seek an SNT ban in all or almost all agreements unless both the Secretary of State and the Energy Secretary agree to waive the requirement. There has also been discussion of a regional approach − for example the US might seek SNT bans in the Middle East but put Asia in the too-hard basket.

US business groups are fighting initiatives to limit the spread of SNT. In July, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce called on the Obama administration to expedite conclusion of bilateral agreements and to adopt a "pragmatic" approach to SNT.[4]

The business groups expressed concern that as well as losing out on business opportunities to competitors who do not impose the same restrictions, the US is also at risk of losing influence on nuclear security and non-proliferation on the global stage. The second argument is disingenuous − effectively the business groups are saying the government ought to permit the spread of SNT so the US is better placed to limit the spread of SNT.

That disingenuous argument was the basis of an April 25 joint letter to the Obama administration by former deputy Defense secretary John Hamre, former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and James Jones, former Defense secretaries James Schlesinger and William Cohen, and retired Adm. Michael Mullen, previously chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.[5] They argue against tightening restrictions because the "U.S. civil nuclear industry is one of [Washington's] most powerful tools for advancing its nuclear nonproliferation agenda. ... Weakening it will merely cede foreign markets to other suppliers less concerned about nonproliferation than the United States." In other words, spread SNT to help stop the spread of SNT, and spread SNT or other countries less concerned about the spread of SNT will spread SNT.

Henry Sokolski from the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center questioned the letter's contention that nuclear trade must be a principal vehicle for Washington's non-proliferation objectives: "You'd think after our wretched experience with civil nuclear programs in Iran, India, Iraq, Pakistan and our past near-calls with Taiwan and South Korea's programs, this would be the last thing anyone truly opposed to nuclear weapons proliferation would push."[5]

Sokolski collaborated with Foreign Policy Initiative head Jamie Fly on a February 2012 letter to Obama, signed by 20 conservative defense experts, recommending an approach stronger than the case-by-case policy then in favour in Washington. The signatories − including former Defense Department policy head Eric Edelman, former national security adviser Steven Hadley and former nuclear nonproliferation envoy Robert Joseph − said: "Rather than abandon efforts to tighten nonproliferation controls on civil nuclear exports, the United States should be leveraging access to our market to encourage French, Russian, and Asian nuclear suppliers to tighten their own rules to meet the nonproliferation gold standard."[6]

There are indications that Taiwan might agree to an SNT ban as part of a nuclear trade agreement with the US. [7,8] The current US−Taiwan agreement, which does not include an SNT ban, expires next year. Taiwan might sign an agreement without an expiration date, meaning that the SNT ban would be in force indefinitely.

South Korea is effectively a member of the 'gold standard' club as the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula prohibits both North and South Korea from possessing enrichment or reprocessing facilities. However North Korea has violated the Declaration, and the situation in north-east Asia is further complicated by Japan's stockpiling of vast amounts of separated plutonium − a problem which will only worsen if the Rokkasho reprocessing plant proceeds to operation (see Nuclear Monitor #763, 'Japan's reprocessing plans').

The US is pressing South Korea to agree to maintain SNT bans as part of negotiations on the extension of the nuclear agreement. South Korea is unwilling to continue to forego SNT, and deadlocked negotiations have been extended for two years. There is some hope that if Taiwan agrees to an SMT ban, South Korea might be persuaded to do likewise. But even if Taiwan foregoes SNT, two elephants remain in the room − North Korea and Japan − not to mention the nuclear weapons programs of the US itself and of China.

South Korea's research into 'pyroprocessing' complicates the issue. Pyroprocessing would involve separating short-lived fission products from spent fuel, leaving plutonium mixed with other transuranics (a.k.a. actinides). That is far preferable to conventional reprocessing. On the other hand, proliferators would much prefer to have access to a mix of transuranics (including plutonium) rather than spent fuel, as spent fuel generates much more radioactivity and heat and is therefore much more difficult to handle.

Negotiations on a nuclear trade agreement between the US and Malaysia may commence in coming years but there is no indication as to whether Malaysia would agree to SNT bans.

Negotiations on a nuclear trade agreement between the US and Vietnam have commenced, but Vietnam is reportedly unwilling to agree to an SNT ban.[9,10]

Middle East
Discussions are ongoing between the US and Saudi Arabia on a nuclear trade agreement.[11] The option of a ban on SNT in Saudi Arabia is under discussion according to US State Department official Thomas Countryman. However Saudi Arabia has expressed unwillingness to forego SNT.

Countryman dismisses concerns that Saudi Arabia might develop nuclear weapons, although members of the ruling family have said they might do just that in response to Iran's nuclear program.[12] Also of concern is the potential for instability in the kingdom and who might control SNT if the ruling family is overthrown.

Saudi Arabia has signed cooperation pacts with a number of other nations including China, France, South Korea and Argentina.[13] Canadian officials have expressed concerns about the potential for Saudi Arabia to pursue nuclear weapons. "Minimal [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards are in place in SA [Saudi Arabia] to verify peaceful uses of nuclear energy ... and it has refused to accept strengthened safeguards," officials said in an assessment prepared for Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister last year. "Many observers question SA's nuclear intentions, especially if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. As a result, SA does not meet Canada's requirements for nuclear cooperation."[14]

Countryman said he is "confident that any civil nuclear cooperation we agree would not in any way contribute [to] or encourage" nuclear weapons development in Saudi Arabia, although he surely knows that nuclear exports to Saudi Arabia could indeed contribute to and encourage proliferation. The US National Intelligence Council warned in its 2008 ' Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World' report of the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and noted that a number of states in the region "are already thinking about developing or acquiring nuclear technology useful for development of nuclear weaponry."[15]

The US has also held discussions with Jordan and Syria regarding nuclear trade in recent years, though the talks have stalled because of political turmoil in the Middle East.[10,12]

Jordan is reportedly unwilling to agree to an SNT ban [16] though there were hints in early 2012 that perhaps Jordan would agree to a ban.[17]

The unfolding saga over US nuclear export policy should be put in context. In particular, it needs to be seen in the context of countless failed multilateral and international proposals over the decades to limit the spread of SNTs, such as the Bush administration's 'Global Nuclear Energy Partnership'.[18]

Such proposals fail for various reasons, not least the unwillingness of nuclear have-nots to forego options and technologies that the nuclear haves (weapons states and weapons-capable states) will not renounce. Another complication is Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which states: "Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes ... All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy."

Lastly, an article on US nuclear export policy would be incomplete without mention of the tireless − and ultimately successful − efforts of the US under the Bush administration to end the global norm of prohibiting nuclear trade with countries that have not signed the NPT. The 2008 US−India nuclear trade agreement has had a number of unfortunate, predictable outcomes − legitimising nuclear weapons programs and fanning proliferation in South Asia, legitimising China's supply of reactor technology to Pakistan, undermining and complicating efforts to persuade Iran to forego SNT, etc. The Obama administration has done nothing to undo the damage.

[15] US National Intelligence Council, 2008, "Global Trends 2025 – a Transformed World",