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– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
U.S., Vietnam Initial Civil Nuclear Pact
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Daniel Horner

The United States and Vietnam last month initialed an agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation in what may be an indicator of future U.S. policy governing the nonproliferation requirements for such agreements.

The text of the agreement, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Bình Minh initialed Oct. 10 in Brunei, has not been made public. Sources said it contains a Vietnamese commitment, although not a legally binding one, to refrain from pursuing uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing.

The Obama administration has been conducting an internal policy review for at least three years on the question of how hard the United States should press its potential nuclear trade partners to forgo enrichment and reprocessing activities, which are considered sensitive because they can be used to produce nuclear explosive material.

Backers of a U.S. ban on enrichment and reprocessing say such an approach is critical to nonproliferation efforts and that the United States should demonstrate leadership in that area.

Opponents argue that a policy of barring enrichment and reprocessing would be unacceptable to most countries, stymie prospects for U.S. companies to sell nuclear goods, and drive potential buyers into the arms of nuclear supplier countries such as France and Russia, which have less-rigorous nonproliferation requirements than the United States does.

In its 2009 nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) said it would not pursue an indigenous enrichment or reprocessing program. (See ACT, June 2009.) Nonproliferation advocates on Capitol Hill and elsewhere have argued that other cooperation agreements should meet that “gold standard,” as a State Department spokesman characterized it during an August 2010 press briefing.

In an Oct. 24 interview, a State Department official said that Vietnam made a commitment in the agreement to rely on international fuel markets for nuclear fuel services rather than acquiring enrichment or reprocessing technology. The commitment is political rather than legal, the official said, but “in Vietnam’s case, we are satisfied that [its] political commitment is sufficient, based on its lack of intent and capability” to pursue sensitive nuclear activities.

Vietnam is “acting like a responsible nuclear partner,” the official said, noting that Vietnam has taken steps such as bringing into force an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, getting rid of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, and ratifying the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and an amendment that broadens its scope.

The official declined to say what form the political commitment took, but two other sources said it was in the preamble to the agreement.

In an Oct. 17 interview, a House staffer who had received a briefing on the agreement characterized the commitment as a statement by Vietnam that it is “not planning to do anything now” with regard to enrichment and reprocessing. On the basis of the information provided at the briefing, it appears that the Vietnamese have promised to refrain from doing something that they were not intending to do anyway, the staffer said. But they could change their minds, and the decision is “100 percent up to them,” he said.

According to the State Department official, the agreement does not include language saying that Vietnam maintains its right to pursue sensitive nuclear activities at a later date.

The official noted that the Vietnam accord has only been initialed and therefore is not necessarily finalized. Like other nuclear cooperation agreements, the pact with Vietnam must go through a review by several U.S. government agencies. Once President Barack Obama approves the agreement, it would be signed and submitted to Congress with supporting documents, including a Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement.

At a March 2011 nuclear policy conference, Richard Stratford, the State Department official who has primary responsibility for U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements, said the unresolved policy debate over the gold standard was preventing progress on the Vietnam agreement. But in the Oct. 24 interview, the State Department official said the initialing of the Vietnam agreement did not mean that the policy review had concluded. The review “is still ongoing,” the official said.

After an earlier stage of the policy review, Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman and Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said in a Jan. 10, 2012, letter to Congress that the United States would conduct negotiations on nuclear cooperation agreements “on the basis of a case-by-case review.” Referring to a meeting that month with Vietnam about a potential agreement, Poneman and Tauscher said U.S. negotiators would “lay out a spectrum of options for addressing enrichment and reprocessing.” (See ACT, March 2012.)

The United States is in various stages of discussion of new and renewed nuclear cooperation agreements with a number of other countries, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Taiwan.

In an Oct. 28 letter to Kerry, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed “deep concerns” about the administration’s policy, calling it “inconsistent and confusing.” One of Corker’s requests of Kerry was that the administration provide briefings on the agreement with Vietnam “prior to the president’s submission [of the agreement] for congressional consideration later this year.” The State Department official declined to provide a timetable for the submittal, but the House staffer said the administration was expected to send it to Congress “this year.”