WASHINGTON -- Thomas Countryman, a senior U.S. State Department official, said he expects nuclear trade negotiations with Taiwan to wrap up “soon” and a pact to be sent to Congress for review before year’s end.
In an exclusive interview, the assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation said the new accord could include some important new wording not found in the original agreement, which expires next June.
Taiwanese officials told GSN last year, prior to the outset of the talks, that they would volunteer to incorporate a no-fuelmaking pledge into their upcoming renewal accord with Washington. Countryman said the island nation’s abstinence from such activities – widely viewed as a helpful move for global nonproliferation – could make its way into the renewal compact.
“I’ve got no indication that Taiwan has any interest in enrichment and reprocessing,” he told Global Security Newswire, noting that the text of the replacement agreement “might” include Taipei’s renunciation of indigenous nuclear-fuelmaking.
Nuclear trade deals offer partner nations access to sensitive U.S. nuclear energy technologies, materials and know-how. These agreements sometimes allow for enrichment or reprocessing, which could be useful for civil energy production. However, fuelmaking activities also can raise alarms in terms of their potential to help develop an illicit nuclear arms capacity, as is widely suspected with Iran.
Some nonproliferation experts are hoping Taiwan will explicitly state in its upcoming renewal agreement this type of commitment, not because of particular concern that Taipei would ever build nuclear arms but rather to help solidify a precedent.
If the East Asian nation agrees in print not to enrich or reprocess, it would be the first to join the United Arab Emirates in adopting the so-called “gold standard” in nonproliferation. This is a term the State Department coined four years ago to describe the accord that the Persian Gulf country sealed with Washington.
Since then, senior Obama administration officials have described applying the UAE model only on a “case-by-case” basis -- an approach lauded by the nuclear industry as making it more likely that U.S. companies could land deals to build reactors and provide atomic energy services abroad.
Countryman, though, objected to the various ways in which nuclear nonproliferation advocates and industry proponents have adopted competing lexicon to bolster their respective positions.
“I’ve never liked the terms ‘gold standard’ and ‘case-by-case.’ Neither of them captures the fact that this is one element of a comprehensive strategy, a comprehensive policy that discourages enrichment and reprocessing,” he said.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike rejected the idea of a “case-by-case” policy early last year, complaining it did not do enough to stanch proliferation. The Capitol Hill concerns prompted the Obama administration to initiate its third successive internal review of the matter.
Following years of acrimonious debate across federal agencies -- principally between the State and Energy departments -- Countryman last month said the executive branch policy review is “still under way.”
He would not comment on reports last year that review results had been delivered to the Oval Office and were awaiting President Obama’s determination. The State Department official also declined to confirm a reported interagency compromise on the matter, namely that U.S. negotiators would seek a no-fuelmaking pledge in almost all partner-nation agreements unless both the secretary of State and the Energy secretary agree to waive the requirement.
Absent a policy review outcome, Countryman was reluctant to state whether U.S. negotiating policy is to advocate strongly that nuclear trade interlocutors agree to forego fuelmaking. Rather, he described Washington’s atomic cooperation negotiations as one tool among many for advancing global nonproliferation goals.
“We have a policy of discouraging the spread of enrichment and reprocessing, which must be applied through a variety of tools, including 123s,” Countryman said, referring to nuclear agreements governed by Section 123 of the 1954 U.S. Atomic Energy Act.
Earlier portions of the interview addressed an array of topics in Countryman’s portfolio, including proposed talks about a Mideast ban on weapons of mass destruction and a possible U.S. nuclear trade accord with Saudi Arabia.
The following are edited excerpts of the third and final section of the June 26 interview, in which the State Department figure addressed nonproliferation concerns broadly and, in particular, in Asia.
GSN: There has been an ongoing internal Obama administration policy review on how best to pursue nonproliferation objectives in the context of nuclear trade agreements. Where does that stand?
Countryman: United States policy is consistent, longstanding, supported by many administrations and consistently supported by Congress. And that is that we discourage the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies.
We have many tools with which to accomplish that discouragement. These include the Nuclear Suppliers Group; it includes ensuring reliability of supplies, [and] establishing international fuel banks; and, it includes the influence that the United States attains by careful negotiation of [Section] 123 agreements.
I view nuclear cooperation agreements as a tool of a policy, rather than as a policy.
GSN: What guidance does U.S. policy offer in terms of how aggressively Washington envoys pursue from a partner nation a pledge not to engage in domestic enrichment or reprocessing or, in other words, accept the gold standard? …
Countryman: Well, I’ve never liked the terms ‘gold standard’ and ‘case-by-case.’ Neither of them captures the fact that this is one element of a comprehensive strategy, a comprehensive policy that discourages enrichment and reprocessing. …
GSN: Is the Obama administration policy review still under way and what are its results?
Countryman: It’s still under way.
GSN: Are recommendations at the White House awaiting approval?
Countryman: The review is still under way.
GSN: And you’re saying you’d prefer not to answer the question about where recommendations stand?
Countryman: I’m saying what I said. The review is under way. …
GSN: Issue expert Mark Hibbs last August said that the U.S. policy might allow a presumption in favor of asking U.S. trade partners to adopt a no-fuelmaking gold standard, with any exceptions to that rule requiring approval from both the secretary of Energy and secretary of State. Is that an accurate portrayal of what is currently under consideration?
Countryman: I don’t know him; I didn’t read the article; I don’t know his source. It’s an idea.
GSN: An idea that you’ve heard before?
Countryman: It’s just an idea.
GSN: It’s not policy at this time?
Countryman: We have a policy of discouraging the spread of enrichment and reprocessing, which must be applied through a variety of tools, including 123s.
GSN: So moving onto some specific negotiations, I have reported that Taiwan has indicated an interest in making a pledge in its nuclear trade renewal with Washington not to enrich or reprocess on its territory. Do you anticipate these negotiations might wrap up soon and that this type of pledge might be made?
Countryman: I’m optimistic the negotiations will finish soon. I’ve got no indication that Taiwan has any interest in enrichment and reprocessing.
GSN: Do you think that might be included in its agreement with the U.S.?
Countryman: It might.
GSN: Do you have a sense as to by what date that agreement would need to go before the U.S. Congress to allow for 90 days of review during continuous session?
Countryman: Soon, this year. … I’m sure somebody has made the calculation. I haven’t myself.
GSN: There’s some talk now about Malaysia being interested in establishing a 123 agreement with the United States. Can you offer a status report?
Countryman: Malaysia has an interest in developing nuclear power. And as part of that, they’ve expressed an interest in having nuclear cooperation discussions with the United States. We look forward to holding such discussions, but there’s no date set at this time.
GSN: Vietnam is another nation with which the United States is in negotiations. Has Vietnam resisted or rejected the idea of making a no-enrichment-or-reprocessing pledge?
Countryman: We are in negotiations with Vietnam and for that reason I won’t comment on the substance.
GSN: Any sense as to when those talks might wrap up?
GSN: Finally on the nuclear trade front, South Korea: It was recently observed that the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has effectively made South Korea a gold-standard nation, in that the statement prohibits either side from possessing nuclear reprocessing or enrichment facilities. Is it your understanding that this remains a binding commitment for South Korea, or does the fact that North Korea walked away from that Joint Declaration relieve Seoul of this pledge?
Countryman: We consider the Joint Declaration to be valid and important.
GSN: Is “valid” different from “binding”?
Countryman: I’m not aware that anybody has questioned that.
GSN: I think North Korea has said that it doesn’t feel it is bound by that declaration any more.
Countryman: I haven’t heard the same statement from the South Koreans.
GSN: On the recent decision to kick the can down the road for a U.S.-South Korean nuclear trade renewal pact, why did the United States prefer that option to the alternative of walking away from talks?
Countryman: Well, I don’t see that as an alternative. The alternatives that I see are we either reach an agreement that fully meets the technical, economic and nonproliferation interests that we share with South Korea, or we let the agreement expire.
Second outcome is unacceptable to all sides. And rather than accept that, we asked for a two-year extension so that we have additional time to address complex economic, technical [and] nonproliferation issues.
The current agreement was written more than 40 years ago, before South Korea had any serious nuclear industry. Today it’s a world leader in that field. And updating the agreement to take account of new realities is a complex task, and one that we will not take shortcuts on.
With the additional two years that we now have to negotiate, I’m confident that we will reach a good outcome.
Countryman: I hope we will sign it before 2016. What we have to do is have a common understanding of what decisions we will make together at the conclusion of the study. That is one element -- but by no means the only element -- of a nuclear cooperation agreement.
GSN: Are there are other elements to which you could point so that we might better understand what still must be discussed?
GSN: And you said that you’re hoping it could be signed before 2016. Do you have a target date in mind?
Countryman: Well, it should be signed in 2015 in order to meet what we hope will be a new expiration date in 2016.