The roster of countries agreeing to forgo enrichment and reprocessing technologies has risen to two. As the time ticks down to expiration of its bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S., the government of Taiwan has announced that it is prepared to renounce any right to enrich or reprocess nuclear fuel. Despite the fact that the pledge did not come in response to an Administration demand to do so, the Taiwanese pledge does notch up the precedent of countries voluntarily agreeing to carry the nonproliferation banner is a responsible manner.
In Elaine Grossman’s most recent GSN piece, internal administration squabbling about whether or not to foist the Gold Standard — so named after the 2009 U.S.-UAE agreement which included the same provision — on other countries continues without resolution. Most interesting is that the public statement made by the Department of State last year regarding H.R. 1280 seemed to indicate that it was against wholesale adoption of the Gold Standard for all 123 agreements. Since that time, however, the policy has been kicked back for interagency review, partly, I’d imagine, because it does not comport with the nonproliferation credentials the White House has been seeking to burnish. Interestingly, Grossman reports that back in 2010, then-Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg was reportedly arguing for adoption of the Gold Standard, which, in his view, “would help Obama honor his 2009 pledge in Prague to pursue ‘an end to the dedicated production of weapons-grade materials.” Unfortunately, he came up against Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman, whose view is echoed by U.S. industry advocates, “that demanding a gold-standard promise could alienate partner nations. Rather than agree to Washington’s terms, such interlocutors could easily send their business to international competitors that impose fewer restrictions on nuclear sales, including Russia and France.”
As readers of this blog know, I have gone to great lengths to disprove the latter argument. There is simply not enough categorical evidence that other countries would boycott U.S. industry completely. And frankly, those that are willing to do so should, in my humble opinion, be suspect. Either you sign on to carry the nonproliferation baton, or you do not. Forgoing ENR technologies very clearly puts a country into the former camp.
Moreover, the term of a typical 123 agreement — let’s say 20 years — is a lifetime in global political affairs. Sure, the U.S. government is on friendly terms with the South Korean government now. But what if, as the government in Seoul has recently said, it refuses to forgo ENR technology in its new 123 agreement with the U.S.? The U.S. and Seoul sign a new agreement without the “no ENR provision” and U.S. industry jumps into the fray, supplying centrifuge technology to Seoul. Then, in five years, ten years, or even 20 years, we are no longer on friendly terms with South Korea. Then what? We would have supplied the means to manufacture weapons-grade uranium and plutonium to a now unfriendly nation (n.b., I am certainly not suggesting that this will actually happen, but remember when the U.S. was on friendly terms with Iran?) One does not know what the future holds, particularly in global affairs. In this case, the U.S. has the opportunity to foreclose on what could be a dangerous future, even if it never comes to pass.
It is unfortunate that the Department of Energy is choosing near-term nuclear commerce over longer-term proliferation principles, particularly since they are statutorily required to guard the latter.