Following an August 3 report in the Wall Street Journal, the arms control blogosphere has been buzzing about a nearly finalized nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and Vietnam. According to the Journal, and now other outlets including The Guardian and Global Security Newswire , the U.S.-Vietnam deal has considerably weaker proliferation controls than the Obama administration has demanded in the past – specifically, the agreement would allow Vietnam to retain the right to enrich uranium.
The Risks and Benefits of Enrichment
Uranium enrichment technology has both civil and military applications: it can be used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants or fissile material for nuclear weapons. Any country that possesses enrichment facilities would be able to use this technology to jumpstart a weapons program. But any country without enrichment facilities is unable to independently produce nuclear fuel for its reactors and thus required to import fuel for its nuclear energy program.
The U.S.-Vietnam Deal
The terms of the U.S.-Vietnam deal represent a significant break from the Obama administration’s previous efforts to guard against proliferation by preventing the spread of uranium enrichment technology and facilities. In its 2009 cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates and in recent negotiations with Jordan, the United States has insisted that the two Middle Eastern countries forgo their right to uranium enrichment as part of any nuclear trade deal. Now the administration is apparently stepping back from this position by failing to insist on similar restrictions in its agreement with Vietnam. Vuong Huu Tan, the director of the Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute, has announced that Vietnam does not intend to enrich uranium, so it is unclear why the U.S. did not insist on a legal backing for this pledge. Accepting weaker terms in an agreement with Vietnam would raise questions about a lack of consistency in U.S. non-proliferation policies and jeopardize past and future attempts by the U.S. government to limit the proliferation of uranium enrichment technology.
The Jordan Case
Vietnam is not the only country that is trying to negotiate a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. As reported by the Journal in June, U.S.-Jordan negotiations about a possible nuclear deal stalled specifically because the U.S. insisted on an enrichment ban in the agreement, a provision that the Jordanian government was unwilling to accept. Jordan views enrichment technology as its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Article IV of the NPT establishes “the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” The article also states that signatories have the right to the “fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials, and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.” Jordan argues that Article IV gives the country a right to the complete nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment technology. American officials, however, have refused to agree to Jordanian demands and have insisted that Jordan, like the U.A.E., should renounce its right to uranium enrichment.
A “Region by Region” Approach
When questioned about the reported failure to include an enrichment ban in the U.S.-Vietnam agreement, State Department Assistant Secretary Philip Crowley explained that the U.S. is utilizing a “country-by-country or region-by-region” approach:
CROWLEY: We recognize and we certainly would encourage countries to make the same decision that the UAE has made. At the same time, not every country is going to make that decision. If a country decides to pursue nuclear energy, and a country decides that it chooses to enrich on its own soil, then we would prospectively work with that country; number one, to make sure that their [sic] pursuit of nuclear energy meets all international safeguards; they [sic] work cooperatively with the IAEA. And we believe that that also would provide the kinds of security assurances that we think are important to make sure that any country that pursues nuclear power does not become a potential source of proliferation.
There’s not going to be any – we would like to see the day where there is an international regime and that fewer countries enrich. That is our broad policy goal, but we recognize that a particular approach is going to be different country-by-country or region-by-region.”
This “region by region” approach, however, is problematic for two reasons. First, the Vietnam deal undermines the precedent set by the U.S.-U.A.E. agreement and weakens the global norm against the spread of enrichment technology. As pointed out by Henry Sokolski in the National Review, the U.S.-U.A.E. deal was just a week ago considered the “gold standard” for nuclear cooperation agreements. Now, the U.S. doesn’t have a single standard for nuclear pacts. Instead, by giving Vietnam privileges over the U.A.E. and Jordan, the U.S. is returning to a policy tantamount to dividing the world into “good guys” and “bad guys.” This same philosophy led to the U.S.-India deal, which undermined the NPT and the standards of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Now, the Obama administration appears to be saying that East Asian countries may develop enrichment technology, but countries in the Middle East should not.
Even before the U.S.-Vietnam agreement, Jordan was unhappy with U.S. efforts to restrict the spread of enrichment technology. Khaled Toukan, the head of Jordan’s Atomic Energy Commission, complained to the Journal in June, “we believe in the universality of the NPT. We do not agree on applying conditions and restrictions outside of the NPT on a regional basis or a country-by-country basis.” Heavily dependent on oil and in possession of large uranium reserves, Jordan has strong economic incentives to develop its nuclear energy program. Moreover, Jordan is one of the U.S.’s closest allies in the Middle East. Should the U.S. agree to this deal with Vietnam, Jordan will have further reason to object to the U.S.’s double standard.
Second, if the U.S. is going to employ a region by region approach, is East Asia really the region where we want to allow the spread of sensitive nuclear technology? Yes, the Middle East is one of the most volatile places in the world, but East Asia is far from harmonious. Densely packed with nuclear powers (Russia, China, and North Korea), East Asia is also home to Japan, which already enriches and reprocesses its own nuclear fuel, South Korea, which has been pushing for the right to enrich and reprocess its own fuel, and Taiwan, which twice attempted to develop nuclear weapons. Moreover, East Asia isn’t too far removed from South Asia, which has its own set of competing nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, and at least one potential nuclear wannabe, Burma.
The proliferation of enrichment technology is potentially destabilizing, regardless of where it takes place. But the spread of nuclear energy is not dependent on the spread of enrichment facilities. Instead, the U.S. should continue to insist on an enrichment ban in its nuclear agreements while also including provisions to ensure that countries without enrichment technology have access to an affordable, reliable supply of nuclear fuel. As one of the largest users of nuclear energy in the world and a major nuclear supplier, the United States has the economic and political leverage to shape the growth of the international nuclear energy industry. Assistant Secretary Crowley is right in working toward the goal of “an international regime [where] fewer countries enrich,” but if this regime is ever going to become a reality, it is important that the U.S. stick to its guns on the enrichment ban.