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Bipartisan House Report Castigates Obama Nuclear Trade Policy

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Ranking Member Howard Berman (D-Calif.), shown with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prior to a February hearing. The committee issued a bipartisan report criticizing an Obama administration policy to demand the strictest nonproliferation provisions in nuclear trade pacts only on a "case-by-case" basis (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta). U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Ranking Member Howard Berman (D-Calif.), shown with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prior to a February hearing. The committee issued a bipartisan report criticizing an Obama administration policy to demand the strictest nonproliferation provisions in nuclear trade pacts only on a "case-by-case" basis (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta).

WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan report issued last week by the House Foreign Affairs Committee raps the Obama administration for a recently articulated nuclear trade policy that takes a “case-by-case” approach to sharing sensitive technologies with non-nuclear weapon nations (see GSN, March 9).

“Any future agreements should contain a provision that the cooperating country will not develop or acquire any uranium enrichment or spent-fuel reprocessing facilities, or engage in such activities, as a critical counterpoint to Iran,” states the official report on H.R. 1280. 

The document was referring to Tehran’s alleged practice of “supplementing its public [nuclear energy production] activities with clandestine efforts” aimed at developing an atomic weapons capability.

The legislation, which would enact reforms to the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, was passed unanimously by the committee a year ago in an effort to boost congressional power to review proposed pacts that would give other states access to sensitive U.S. technologies and materials (see GSN, April 15, 2011). 

The panel’s belated release of a report on its bill appears to be an effort to jump-start congressional interest in the measure. 

However, it is unclear whether the legislation has enough backing in the House Rules Committee to make it to the chamber floor for debate and a vote.  A committee spokeswoman said she was unable to offer comment by press time.

Under H.R. 1280, Congress could take up-or-down votes on proposed nuclear trade agreements in which Washington’s partner has insisted on retaining an ability to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium.  These activities are useful for benign civil power production but also could open the door to an illicit effort to fabricate bomb-grade fissile material.

For an atomic trade partner that does agree to forgo its own enrichment or reprocessing -- sometimes dubbed “ENR” -- the bipartisan legislation would permit a cooperation pact to be implemented automatically after 90 days of continuous congressional session, unless lawmakers vote to stop it.

By contrast, U.S. law currently allows any nuclear trade to move forward under these more permissive legislative-review terms, even if they lack the so-called “gold standard” nonproliferation provisions.

Senior Obama administration officials in January told lawmakers that following an interagency policy review begun in 2010, U.S. diplomats would take a “case-by-case” approach to nuclear trade talks and would not necessarily demand a gold standard pledge in each instance (see GSN, Jan. 11).

“We need to negotiate agreements that our partners can accept and that open doors to U.S. industry,” reads the Jan. 10 letter, obtained by Global Security Newswire.  “We are concerned that other options could have the opposite effect, by reducing the number of future U.S. partners, minimizing our nonproliferation influence, and raising questions about our reliability as a supplier” (see GSN, Jan. 23).

The committee principals -- Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Ranking Member Howard Berman (D-Calif.) -- reportedly are still awaiting a promised meeting with administration officials to discuss the emerging policy.

Meanwhile, their legislative report takes a whack at the case-by-case strategy, arguing it is insufficient to prevent proliferation and improperly places commercial interests ahead of national security concerns.

Amid Iranian and North Korean efforts to use peaceful power generation activities as the basis for alleged clandestine military work, the United States policy must be tightened, the committee argues. 

A raft of Middle East nations has voiced heightened interest in cultivating atomic energy efforts of their own (see GSN, Jan. 28, 2008).  The development threatens to spur a dangerous regional arms race, the report suggests.

At the same time, the United States is eyeing the possibility of inking nuclear cooperation accords with a number of Mideast countries, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia (see GSN, Jan. 25, 2011). 

It is unclear whether any such pacts would include a pledge similar to one taken by the United Arab Emirates in its 2009 nuclear deal with Washington, in which the Persian Gulf nation agreed not to enrich or reprocess on its own soil.

“Despite the clear dangers involved, the U.S. and other countries are inadvertently encouraging” the spread of atomic arms in the Middle East “by promoting nuclear cooperation agreements which, in the view of the committee, contain insufficient safeguards” against diversion of sensitive materials to military efforts, the report reads.

“Any future agreement should contain a provision that the cooperating country will not develop or acquire any uranium enrichment or spent-fuel reprocessing facilities, or engage in such activities, as a critical counterpoint to Iran,” according to the committee.

The panel appeared particularly alarmed by developments in Saudi Arabia, where a high-ranking prince and former head of the kingdom’s intelligence service said in December that Riyadh was mulling a program to produce nuclear arms.

If a possible Washington nuclear trade pact with that nation fails to contain a no-enrichment or reprocessing provision, “the U.S. may end up helping Saudi Arabia acquire nuclear facilities, material, and expertise that could be employed for either civilian or military use in the future,” the House lawmakers asserted.

The same might be said of any such future accord with nations in the region as they undergo revolutionary changes as part of an extended “Arab spring,” the report states.

“Recent events have demonstrated that many regimes in the Middle East are unstable and that it is impossible to predict who may come to power should these fall,” according to the document.  “With that power would come the option to use any existing nuclear infrastructure to establish a military program.  Given this alarming possibility, U.S. national interests argue strongly for stopping this trend, especially preventing the acquisition of an ENR capability by additional countries, regardless of any claimed purpose.

“But,” the report goes on to say, “the U.S. has instead declared that preventing the acquisition of an ENR capability -- and thus the option of its diversion to military uses -- will no longer be a necessary condition in considering new nuclear cooperation agreements.”

A State Department spokesman on Friday declined specific comment on the new committee report, but did say the administration stands by a July 2011 position paper regarding the Atomic Energy Act reform legislation.  In last summer's policy statement, the agency said it "shares many of the policy objectives reflected in H.R. 1280, but is deeply concerned by many of the bill’s provisions."

"If H.R. 1280 were enacted, the administration expects that the United States would see a significant drop in the number of states willing to conduct nuclear cooperation with our country," reads the 2011 statement.  The U.S. ability to influence prospective trade partners' nonproliferation practices "would therefore be significantly diminished, while at the same time the U.S. nuclear industry’s ability to be a major player in global civil nuclear cooperation in the future would be crippled, resulting in the loss of potential American jobs."

The House report acknowledges that other nuclear export nations, such as France and Russia, have been aggressive in developing markets for new reactors and energy services and not always as zealous about proliferation concerns.

“The result is that limits on the initiation and development of nuclear programs around the world are determined more by a lack of financing than concerns about proliferation,” the lawmakers said.

The U.S. nuclear industry, though, has offered “no evidence to support” the contention that Washington’s effort to solicit no-ENR pledges from future atomic trade partners would put American companies at a competitive disadvantage with their foreign rivals, the House report contends.

Following the January congressional notification of its case-by-case policy, worries mounted on Capitol Hill that Washington could be racing its overseas competitors to the lowest common denominator in proliferation risks.

“The committee is concerned that nonproliferation provisions in future nuclear cooperation agreements may be subordinated to commercial and political considerations,” the report states.  “The result would be to forgo a major opportunity to advance this country’s fundamental national security interests that are threatened by the spread of nuclear weapons.”

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