In mid-May a U.S. nuclear sales delegation ventured to Vietnam to convince Hanoi officials to buy Westinghouse reactors. Led by a Commerce Department undersecretary, it included an Energy Department assistant secretary, the director of the newly created White House Office of Nuclear Energy Policy, and 18 nuclear firm representatives. It represents the new Obama “Team USA” approach to nuclear exports: Prospective sales trump proliferation concerns.
Congress has been pressing the administration for new nuclear trade agreements to meet the nonproliferation “gold standard,” set in the 2009 U.S.-United Arab Emirates agreement negotiated by President Bush and finalized by President Obama. It requires customers for U.S. nuclear plants to forgo enriching uranium or extracting plutonium from spent fuel—activities that would give them ready access to nuclear explosives. South Korea, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia have balked at these terms.
Despite President Obama’s lofty nuclear control rhetoric, his administration doesn’t want tight rules that risk nuclear sales. In a fit of honesty, the State Department wrote Congress in January 2012 that we need to “negotiate agreements that our partners can accept and that open the doors to U.S. industry.” Ergo: a “country-by-country” approach. This means pressuring those with weak negotiating hands (e.g., the UAE in 2008) but giving in to those with stronger cards (e.g., Vietnam in 2013).
The claim is that nuclear sales allow us to influence our customers’ nuclear policies. But history tells us that when it becomes important to influence those policies, the same export crowd argues we mustn’t, that it’s more important to maintain our status as a “reliable supplier.”
As if to erase doubts about the administration’s priorities, Rose Gottemoeller, the acting undersecretary of state responsible for arms control, assured the nuclear industry’s top lobbying association in mid-May of President Obama’s all-out support for nuclear exports and his belief that they are a “strategic asset.” She dangled the Commerce Department’s estimate that over the next 10 years U.S. nuclear exports could reach $100 billion.
This estimate, based on self-serving projections of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is wildly overoptimistic, especially in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima accident. The Obama administration is itself being duped. The truth is nuclear power’s future depends on subsidies, as it does not in most of the world meet a market test. We would be doing developing countries like Vietnam a favor if we made that clear instead of beating the drum for nuclear power.
This nuclear boosterism sacrifices the president’s own non-proliferation policies as he outlined in his 2009 Prague speech on nuclear policy. He then vowed that “together we will strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] as a basis for cooperation.” But in practice the administration has gone along with the State Department’s fatalistic approach to the NPT—that however flawed the predominant interpretation of the NPT may be, especially concerning the encouragement of the spread of “peaceful” nuclear technology, it is too late to do much about it because that is how the majority of treaty members see it.
Our diplomats, and the president, too, have taken to describing the NPT as resting on “three pillars,” only one of which is nonproliferation, the other two being reduction of nuclear arms and strong support for expanded nuclear energy use worldwide. U.S. acceptance of the “three pillars” formulation serves to validate the resistance of nuclear establishments around the world to tough nonproliferation standards. It blurs the distinction between nonproliferation and proliferation.
The reason expanded nuclear energy use worldwide is worrisome from a security point of view is that any new entrant into the nuclear weapons club will likely come from the ranks of countries with nuclear power programs. Every nonnuclear-weapon state is now an NPT member, and if one decided it wanted nuclear weapons it would put a high premium on getting to a bomb as fast as possible to avoid counteraction. The quickest way for a country to do this is to tap an existing “peaceful” nuclear power program, especially if it has uranium enrichment or reprocessing plants. That is what the nonproliferation “gold standard” is designed to avoid.
Everyone knows we don’t have adequate international “safeguards” to prevent countries from getting close to a bomb. In fact, the prevailing interpretation of the NPT says countries have the “inalienable right” to “peaceful” nuclear technology so long as they allow IAEA inspection. But we know from experience with North Korea that a country can toss out the inspectors and keep the facilities and bomb potential.
Despite this—and in contrast with the idealistic “getting to zero” mantra on the military nuclear side—the administration has no interest even in defining what would constitute adequate controls over nuclear energy, out of fear this might put a crimp in nuclear sales around the world. The administration is mistaken both on the facts and on its priorities.
We need to deal with much more than North Korea and Iran if we are going to be serious about putting a stop to the bomb’s spread. A good place to begin is to insist on the “gold standard” for export agreements, and to follow that with a broad new approach to the international control of nuclear energy with the world’s other nuclear suppliers.
Victor Gilinsky is an energy consultant and former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.