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State Department Sought to Put Taiwan Nuclear Trade Pact Ahead in Queue

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

A worker at Taiwan Power's No. 2 nuclear plant operates controls during a drill last year. The U.S. State Department in 2011 sought to place Taiwan ahead of others under consideration for bilateral nuclear trade agreements (AP Photo/Wally Santana). A worker at Taiwan Power's No. 2 nuclear plant operates controls during a drill last year. The U.S. State Department in 2011 sought to place Taiwan ahead of others under consideration for bilateral nuclear trade agreements (AP Photo/Wally Santana).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. State Department moved nearly a year ago to put Taiwan ahead of other nations with which Washington hoped to pursue a nuclear trade agreement, drafting text for a renewal pact that would include a key nonproliferation pledge by Taipei (see GSN, July 19).

“If you want a ‘gold standard,’ then you want to do Taiwan first,” atomic weapons expert Jeffrey Lewis said on Wednesday, referring to the East Asian state’s inclination -- first reported by Global Security Newswire last week -- to promise it will not enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium on its soil. Conversely, Lewis said, “if you don’t want to lock yourself into the gold standard, you want to do the hardest case first.”

Advocates say a signed pledge not to domestically produce nuclear fuel could help reduce the risk that a foreign nation would divert sensitive nuclear energy materials into a clandestine atomic weapon program. A Taiwan renewal agreement might allow for the transfer of spent fuel abroad for reprocessing -- perhaps to France -- if the U.S. allows it, a Taiwanese official said on Thursday.

The United Arab Emirates in 2009 was the first to incorporate such a restriction into its own trade agreement with Washington. If Taiwan proceeds in a similar manner, it could be the second worldwide and the first of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region.

Taiwan depends solely on the United States to provide it with sensitive technologies and materials for generating nuclear power, upon which the island nation relies for one-fifth of its electricity needs.

Its government has no plans to produce nuclear fuel, so the nation is well disposed to include a provision banning these activities in its forthcoming pact with Washington, U.S. and Taiwanese officials told GSN last week. Several spoke on condition of not being named because of diplomatic sensitivities.

As of last August, renewal of Taiwan’s 1974 atomic cooperation accord with the United States was not on a “short list” for completion drawn up by an Obama administration Interagency Policy Committee, according to government correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The White House uses the policy committees, chaired by National Security Council staff members, to decide by consensus an array of defense and homeland security matters.

“While Taiwan is not on the IPC agreed short list, some staffers at State think that we should begin this process since the renewal is coming up in 2013 (maybe in 2014),” an Energy Department senior policy adviser, Richard Goorevich, said last September in an e-mail message sent to two other DOE officials.

The 40-year pact with Taiwan expires in 2014 but to avoid a time gap in nuclear cooperation, a renewal agreement could proceed as early as 2013.

The State Department this week did not respond to specific questions about which nations’ new or renewal accords were to be completed in what order, and the reasons why some were prioritized ahead of others.

The department did say on Friday, though, that it is “engaged in negotiating [nuclear trade] agreements with Jordan, the Republic of Korea and Vietnam, and we are discussing an agreement with Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and the [International Atomic Energy Agency].

“We also intend to open negotiations with a number of other countries, many of which have existing agreements that are expiring [or] will soon expire,” the State Department continued in the e-mailed statement. “We cannot provide specific information about the status of ongoing negotiations.”

Richard Stratford -- who leads U.S. atomic trade talks around the globe as head of the State Department Nuclear Energy, Safety and Security Office -- last year told his Energy Department counterparts that he was uncertain as to why a Taiwan renewal agreement was being pursued ahead of pacts with other nations, according to Goorevich’s Sept. 23, 2011, e-mail message.

“I have spoken with Dick [Stratford] and he is unsure as to why this was sent to us now and why we are going out of order from the IPC agreed list,” the Energy official told Joyce Connery, then a senior adviser to the agency’s No. 2 official, and Sean Oehlbert, an Energy program manager and policy adviser.

Connery later that day forwarded to Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman the Goorevich e-mail, flagging it, “This is the issue of which I wanted you to be aware.”

Goorevich had advised in the original message that State’s draft text had included “essentially the no-ENR language from the UAE agreement,” despite the lack of any similar language banning enrichment and reprocessing in Taiwan’s existing nuclear trade agreement with the United States. Issue experts sometimes use the term “ENR” as shorthand for enrichment and reprocessing.

Now detailed to the National Security Council staff as energy policy director, Connery told Poneman she had not yet seen State’s draft text but hoped to obtain a copy soon. Some sections of the Goorevich e-mail message were redacted on the basis that they contained privileged or advisory content.

Speaking at a Washington event in March 2011, Stratford ticked off the names of nations with which the United States might conclude nuclear trade agreements, from a paper pulled out of his jacket pocket.

The list is something “I keep with me, of all the agreements that I have to do over the next four years, assuming I hang around that long,” Stratford told the audience at a panel discussion sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Lacking government confirmation of the contents of the interagency short list dictating the order in which nuclear accords were to be pursued, Stratford’s 2011 cheat sheet might offer some hints.

He said that the pact with Jordan had been largely negotiated -- and could include its own UAE-like provision limiting nuclear fuel production -- but would likely await more stability in the Middle East before being finalized. Talks with Vietnam had begun but were on hold at the time, as the administration reviewed its gold standard policy in general, Stratford said.

That strategy review resulted early this year in a policy in which the United States would decide whether to incorporate nuclear fuel-making bans in new and renewal agreements on a “case-by-case” basis (see GSN, Jan. 23). However, the approach was pulled back into review just a few months later (see GSN, May 4). 

A resolution of the now-stalled interagency debate -- with State reportedly favoring a more proactive pursuit of the gold standard worldwide and Energy preferring the industry-supported case-by-case tack -- awaits a White House decision, according to Washington insiders.

At the 2011 event, Stratford also noted the U.S. nuclear trade agreements up for renewal, namely Bangladesh in 2012; Colombia in 2013; Norway in 2014; the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2014; and Thailand in 2014. Trailing those on Stratford’s list was Taiwan in 2014.

The State official also mentioned ongoing negotiations with South Korea to renew its U.S. pact ahead of a 2014 expiration date. Talks with that East Asian ally have been led at a higher diplomatic level by Robert Einhorn, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control. Those talks reportedly have been bogged down over Seoul’s desire to engage in what Washington considers to be reprocessing of U.S.-origin spent fuel.

Stratford also cited an anticipated renewal agreement with China before an existing pact expires in 2015, as well as the possibility of talks with Mongolia and Saudi Arabia to explore whether first-time cooperation accords should be pursued (see GSN, Sept. 30, 2011, and July 28, 2011).

“Proponents of the gold standard would rather start with Taiwan because it is almost certainly their best chance to set a precedent for future agreements,” said Lewis, previewing a theme on which he intends to elaborate in an upcoming Foreign Policy blog post. “I am not at all surprised if whoever at State added the no-ENR provision to the draft also put Taiwan on top of the stack.”

Given interagency wrangling over the matter since 2009, the Energy Department officials might have opposed pushing Taiwan to the front of the pack for nuclear trade agreements, especially if the accord would include the special nonproliferation language. However, the State Department takes the lead on atomic cooperation negotiations and the redacted version of Goorevich’s e-mail did not make clear Energy’s view on the matter.

For his own part, Poneman has been among those advocating that the Obama administration take a case-by-case approach to applying the gold standard worldwide, rather than make it the new norm as several influential U.S. lawmakers from both parties would prefer (see GSN, Feb. 17).

In fact, the Energy deputy and others have argued that it could be useful for selected nations to provide comprehensive nuclear fuel services -- potentially to include uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing -- for reactors worldwide. This could both help assure energy supply and limit the proliferation of atomic weapons, Poneman argued in a 2004 Survival article co-authored with John Deutch, Arnold Kantor and Ernest Moniz.

“We believe that a set of commercial arrangements among nuclear-fuel service suppliers and electrical utilities that own or may purchase nuclear power stations, backed up by international institutional arrangements, may help ensure that nuclear-generated electricity remains available to all, but that nuclear weapons do not spread beyond their current possessors,” the foursome wrote.

Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program, said in a blog post on Monday that given longstanding expectations that Taiwan would not manufacture nuclear fuel in any case, its pledge in this regard would hold little significance.

“Taiwan’s resolve not to enrich or reprocess has nothing to do with the ‘gold standard’ and nearly everything to do with U.S. leverage over Taiwan’s security arrangements,” Hibbs said in the “Arms Control Wonk” commentary. China claims sovereignty over the long-estranged province, which has received U.S. military aid for decades.

“Given Taiwan’s historical dependence upon technology, equipment, and nuclear fuel from the U.S., the absence of a new bilateral agreement in 2014 would halt Taiwan’s nuclear program in its tracks,” Hibbs wrote.

The U.S. government has not formally asked Taiwan for a domestic no-enrichment-or-reprocessing pledge in its renewal deal, pending resolution of the overall policy review, according to Washington sources. In fact, Taiwan has not been provided any draft language for the anticipated agreement and talks have not yet begun, a Taiwanese government official said.

“We still have no draft agreement in [hand], so our government really has no way to express our official position for ENR or no-ENR yet,” the official told GSN, noting that South Korean news media had recently misreported that Taipei was ready to renounce rights to even offshore reprocessing.

“It seems they misinterpret or misunderstand the meaning of giving up the right of enrichment and reprocessing in Taiwan,” the official said. “There might be more speculation if no draft agreement [is] available to discuss.” 

Some issue experts argue that regardless of whether Taiwan is an obvious candidate for inking a U.S. pact that incorporates the gold standard, it could serve as a useful precedent for Washington broaching the idea of similar commitments in its subsequent negotiations with other nuclear trade partners.

“I would hope Taiwan's apparent willingness to renounce [enrichment and reprocessing] is of at least passing interest to those arguing over whether or not to ask Taiwan to renounce ENR,” said Lewis, who directs the East Asia program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, based in Monterey, Calif.

If Taiwan is an easy “yes” for agreeing not to manufacture atomic fuel on its territory, then failing to apply the gold standard to its renewal pact would be a lost opportunity in efforts to build a new international regime, several nonproliferation advocates argue. U.S. accords of this kind are governed by Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act and are sometimes called “123 agreements.”

“I don’t care how the Taiwanese get there. If the U.S.-Taiwan agreement has the no-ENR provision in it, it’s a victory. Full stop,” Jodi Lieberman, a senior government relations specialist at the American Physical Society, said in a comment on Hibbs’s blog post. “In my book, [that’s] two 123 agreements with a no-ENR provision in them. The rest is inside baseball.”

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