U.S. may land key Asian nuclear trade deals in 2013

U.S. envoys could seal as many as three important nuclear trade agreements with Asian nations this year.

 U.S. envoys could seal as many as three important nuclear trade agreements with Asian nations this year, with at least one more key pact in the region on the diplomatic agenda for completion by 2015.

The renewal of Washington’s existing atomic cooperation pacts with Taiwan and South Korea is under negotiation, and the specific terms that emerge from the talks could prove of great interest to global nonproliferation advocates. A new U.S. agreement with Vietnam is also being discussed and another 30-year accord with China is on the horizon.

By law the U.S. executive branch must submit to Capitol Hill any new nuclear cooperation agreements or renewals for a review period of 90 days of continuous legislative session. If lawmakers in both chambers have not passed legislation to block a pact during that time frame, the agreement becomes eligible for implementation.

Typically this requirement for “continuous session” takes six to seven months to complete -- particularly when factoring in long holiday breaks -- meaning that the administration likely will submit by the end of June this year any deals it hopes to begin executing in 2014.

The timing is particularly important for the renewal of existing accords -- such as with Taiwan, South Korea and China -- so there is no gap in trade relations that could undermine business stability or affect the provision of nuclear energy.

Taiwan’s agreement with the United States expires in June 2014.

Taipei has signaled it is ready to pledge in the upcoming accord not to make nuclear fuel on its soil. U.S. officials have dubbed this type of promise the “gold standard” for helping reduce any risk that a trade partner would secretly use enriched uranium or reprocessed plutonium to build nuclear weapons.

U.S. renewal talks with Taiwan were launched with an initial meeting in October, and indications were that such a pledge would be formally discussed.

“Given the reporting that Taiwan is ready to embrace the gold standard, it shouldn’t take that long at all for the administration to complete that agreement,” said one congressional source who asked not to be named, lacking authorization to address the matter publicly.

By contrast, worries abound regarding South Korean demands that its upcoming renewal pact include a right to “pyroprocess” U.S.-origin atomic materials. That is an experimental reprocessing technique that Washington is reluctant to allow because of its potential to produce weapon-capable nuclear fuel.

Negotiations stalled over this issue and others last fall, heading into both U.S. and South Korean national elections. As 2013 unfolds, it remains unclear whether Seoul’s new president, Park Geun-hye, might be more amenable than her predecessor to simply renewing the old accord’s terms after she takes office on Feb. 25. South Korea’s agreement expires in March 2014.

Time is “running out” for the two nations’ envoys to seal the renewal, issue expert Miles Pomper said in a September essay published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “Negotiators remain far apart on the terms of a new pact.”

The “sticking point” in talks now appears related more to uranium enrichment than the widely discussed rift over plutonium reprocessing, he said.

South Korea wants to develop a uranium enrichment capacity to help ensure a steady supply of fuel for its nuclear reactors, he said. The nation additionally seeks enrichment capability to more effectively compete in the world market for providing comprehensive nuclear fuel services, said Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Also set for possible achievement in 2013: A new nuclear cooperation agreement with Vietnam. A senior State Department official announced a year ago that bilateral discussions were kicking off with Hanoi, which some say has bristled at the idea of including a nonproliferation gold standard provision in its agreement text.

More recently, another high-ranking U.S. diplomat pointed instead to voluntary international trade guidelines as helping prevent the proliferation of enrichment technology to Vietnam or other emerging nuclear energy nations. That infuriated some on Capitol Hill who have pushed to see ironclad promises against nuclear fuel-making incorporated into bilateral cooperation agreements.

The official, acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller, two months earlier noted that she did not “like this term, the ‘gold standard,’” because it implied “somehow everything else we’re doing already is not served by our policy.”

Yet, a so-called Section 123 agreement -- named for a passage in federal law that provides for international atomic cooperation pacts -- with Vietnam and other first-time nuclear energy partners likely will not be concluded until the Obama administration finalizes a policy review regarding how and when it will pursue no-enrichment-or-reprocessing promises abroad.

Interagency discussion of the matter reportedly concluded in 2012 but secret review recommendations have remained at the White House for decision, according to government officials. Earlier in the year, senior administration officials told Congress that U.S. nuclear diplomats would seek gold-standard pledges in nuclear trade negotiations only on a case-by-case basis.

The nascent policy, however, outraged key Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who charged the Obama team did not appear to be pursuing strict nonproliferation terms aggressively enough in its nuclear energy negotiations. The matter quickly went back into internal administration reviewand congressional aides say it appears no new policy has yet been set.

“There is an issue as to whether we should require the gold standard in all future 123s,” U.S. nuclear energy envoy Richard Stratford said in March 2011. “Some people think yes, we should. Let’s tighten up. Others say if you do that, there’s going to be a lot of people that you’re writing off in terms of nuclear cooperation, and do you really want to do that? Well, until we can settle that issue, we really can’t move forward with Vietnam.”

A State Department representative on Friday declined to describe the status of the ongoing review or say when the policy issue would be resolved and publicly discussed.

Until the review is complete, some other nuclear pacts under negotiation with nations elsewhere around the globe remain in limbo, as well.

One is a pending accord with Jordan. Stratford, who directs the State Department’s Nuclear Energy, Safety and Security office, two years ago said an atomic trade pact with the Middle Eastern state was “very, very close” to completion.

However, he said, the government in Amman “had other issues on its mind at the moment” that were delaying the agreement, namely events related to the ongoing Arab political awakening.

At the time, Stratford said, it appeared that further negotiations with Jordan would likely produce an accord “that Congress will like” -- a remark widely interpreted as meaning Amman was prepared to include in the text some form of gold-standard pledge.

Another bilateral pact potentially in the offing that could be directly affected by any new Obama administration policy is one with Saudi Arabia. The State Department representative this week listed the Persian Gulf state alongside Jordan, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam as nations with which “we are negotiating [nuclear trade] agreements.”

U.S. lawmakers from both parties have cited with concern Saudi interest in developing or procuring nuclear arms, suggesting that any atomic trade agreement with Riyadh would receive intense congressional scrutiny.

Back in the Asia-Pacific region, Washington is also looking ahead to renewal of its 1985 atomic energy cooperation pact with China, which expires in 2015. As a recognized nuclear-armed power, Beijing exercises a right to produce nuclear fuel capable of being weaponized.

Its agreement thus would not incorporate a pledge against sensitive fuel-making activities, but rather would include standard 123 language that more narrowly prohibits U.S.-origin atomic materials from being reprocessed or enriched.

Depending on when a renewal pact with China hits Capitol Hill, its review by lawmakers might or might not prove controversial. The level of Chinese support for U.S. policies on containing Iran’s nuclear development efforts and isolating the Syrian government for its brutality in an ongoing civil war could affect congressional treatment of a U.S.-China nuclear accord renewal, according to issue experts.

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