The Obama administration will not adopt a policy of insisting that countries renounce uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing as a condition for concluding agreements for nuclear cooperation with the United States, two senior administration officials said in a Jan. 10 letter to Capitol Hill.
The letter, which indicates the results of a long-running internal policy review, has sparked criticism across the political spectrum.
Since at least the fall of 2010, there has been debate within the administration over whether the United States should press its potential nuclear partners to give up enrichment and reprocessing. (See ACT, October 2010.) The model for that approach is the May 2009 U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
That pact contains a UAE commitment not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing; if the UAE broke that commitment, the United States would have grounds for terminating the agreement. The UAE had previously adopted a national policy renouncing enrichment and reprocessing in favor of reliance on international fuel supplies, but the agreement “transform[ed] the UAE policy into a legally binding obligation,” according to President Barack Obama’s message conveying the agreement to Congress. (See ACT, June 2009.)
In the statement, Obama said the pact “has the potential to serve as a model for other countries in the region that wish to pursue responsible nuclear energy development.” A Department of State spokesman in 2010 referred to the UAE agreement as the “gold standard.”
In the Jan. 10 letter, which first was reported by Global Security Newswire, Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher say they will “pursue 123 agreement negotiations on the basis of a case-by-case review.” Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act requires the United States to have a nuclear cooperation agreement with any country with which it conducts nuclear trade.
Referring to a January meeting with Vietnam about a potential 123 agreement, Poneman and Tauscher said U.S. negotiators would “lay out a spectrum of options for addressing enrichment and reprocessing.”
In a Feb. 14 letter to Poneman and Tauscher, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sharply questioned this approach. “Given that it is unlikely that many countries will freely impose binding restrictions on themselves when given a choice, any request by the U.S. that they do so would be interpreted by all as little more than a pro forma exercise,” she wrote.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, published an article on the Web site of The National Interest calling on Obama to reverse the policy. “If he does not, Congress must provide needed leadership,” he said.
In a joint opinion piece in The Christian Science Monitor, John Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security under President George W. Bush, and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) criticized the Obama policy and endorsed legislation introduced in the House last year that would toughen the congressional review process for 123 agreements that did not follow the UAE model. The bill, which was introduced by Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of her committee, was approved by the panel last April, but has stalled since then. The Obama administration and the nuclear industry have raised objections to it.
Critics have portrayed the policy articulated in the Poneman-Tauscher letter as a reversal, but administration officials have disputed that characterization. In remarks at a Feb. 16 nuclear policy conference in Arlington, Va., and an interview afterward, Poneman said that “it always has been U.S. policy” to approach 123 agreements case by case. With regard to the UAE, he noted that it had adopted a national policy first and the Obama administration “chose to acknowledge [the UAE’s] domestic decision.” There is “nothing that stops us from doing that again,” he said.
“The constant is we should do whatever minimizes the spread of the dangerous technologies” and should use whatever means are “most effective to achieve that end,” he said.
At a Feb. 15 breakfast meeting with reporters, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman said the letter “does not mean in any way that [the United States is] retreating” from its commitment to nonproliferation.
He said that “other countries are not interested in imposing this requirement” to give up enrichment and reprocessing. The United States “should not make a blanket statement that will lock ourselves out of certain markets” and remove its “ability to influence choices other countries are making” with regard to the nuclear fuel cycle, he said.
In part because 123 agreements give the United States this influence, it is important for the U.S. nuclear industry to be able to “compete on a level playing field,” he said. The United States has “an interest in having as many of these  agreements as strongly worded as possible,” he said.
He added that 123 agreements are “only one, and I would say not the most important, means of addressing our concerns” about the spread of enrichment and reprocessing. He cited in particular the agreement last year by the Nuclear Suppliers Group to revise its guidelines for exports relating to enrichment and reprocessing.
In their article, Bolton and Markey said the policy described in the Poneman-Tauscher letter “may expedite the profitability of  agreements for the nuclear industry, but will do so at the expense of US and world security.”
Carol Berrigan, senior director of industry infrastructure and supply chain at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in a Feb. 14 interview that the industry sees its role as being a “responsible partner” with the U.S. government in developing nuclear relations with other countries. She said she viewed the Poneman-Tauscher letter as a “reaffirmation” of a “pragmatic” policy.