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U.S.-Vietnam Atomic Deal Said to Permit Uranium Enrichment

(Aug. 5) -Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, left, poses with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington last April. Some experts have criticized the Obama administration for negotiating a civilian nuclear trade pact with Vietnam that could give uranium enrichment rights to the Asian nation (Jewel Samad/Getty Images). (Aug. 5) -Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, left, poses with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington last April. Some experts have criticized the Obama administration for negotiating a civilian nuclear trade pact with Vietnam that could give uranium enrichment rights to the Asian nation (Jewel Samad/Getty Images).

The United States is in serious discussions with Vietnam on a civilian atomic cooperation deal that would give the Asian state uranium enrichment rights -- a possibility some warn could negatively impact the Obama administration's nuclear nonproliferation efforts in other parts of the globe, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday (see GSN, June 15).

Informed U.S. officials say State Department negotiators have offered a comprehensive nuclear collaboration pact to Hanoi and have begun appraising congressional foreign affairs panels on progress in the trade talks. A deal would give Hanoi access to U.S. nuclear material and equipment.

Some lawmakers in Washington and nonproliferation specialists say the pact would permit Vietnam to enrich uranium on its own territory for reactor fuel -- something Washington has rejected in nuclear trade pact discussions with nations such as Jordan.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty authorizes signatory nations in good standing with the pact's rules to produce their own atomic fuel. However, both the Bush and Obama administrations have demanded that nations pursuing atomic trade pacts with the United States relinquish their uranium enrichment rights. In addition to providing fuel for atomic power reactors, uranium enrichment can also be used to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

The United Arab Emirates gave up its domestic enrichment right in order to ink an atomic trade pact with Washington in 2009. Jordan, however, has insisted in negotiations it should be allowed to retain enrichment rights (see GSN, July 15).

The State Department has determined Asia represents a lower proliferation threat than the Middle East and so has separate standards for negotiating nuclear pacts with countries in the two regions, a high-ranking U.S. official said.

"Given our special concerns about Iran and the genuine threat of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, we believe the UAE ... agreement is a model for the region," said the official, who is familiar with the Vietnam negotiations. "These same concerns do not specifically apply in Asia. We will take different approaches region by region and country by country."

Hanoi and Washington hammered out a tentative deal in March and would like to see the nuclear pact completed sometime this year, Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute Director Vuong Huu Tan said. The Southeast Asian nation does not intend to enrich its its own fuel "as it is sensitive to Vietnam to do so," he said.

The State Department's different negotiating standards open it to accusations from the Arab world and developing nations of hypocrisy, nonproliferation specialists and Capitol Hill staff said.

The perception of unfair double standards might lead Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries interested in nuclear trade deals with the United States to refuse stringent requirements similar to those accepted by the United Arab Emirates, the Journal reported.

"It's ironic ... as nonproliferation is one of the president's top goals that the UAE model is not being endorsed here," said a high-ranking Arab official whose country is interested in atomic energy. "People will start to see a double standard, and it will be a difficult policy to defend in the future."

Issue specialists are also critical of the Foggy Bottom contention that Asia is a lower proliferation risk than the Middle East. They point to North Korea's provision of potential nuclear-weapon technology to countries such as Myanmar. Japan could also quickly manufacture the bomb if it chose to do so, observers say.

"After the U.S. set such a good example with the UAE, the Vietnam deal not only sticks out, it could drive a stake through the heart of the general effort to rein in the spread of nuclear fuel-making," Nonproliferation Policy Education Center Executive Director Henry Sokolski said.

In 2001, Hanoi inked a memorandum of understanding with Washington on establishing a nuclear energy capability. Obama officials emphasized any deal with Hanoi would give the International Atomic Energy Agency strong monitoring authority over the country's atomic sites.

"If we're able to have U.S. companies and technologies in play in Vietnam this gives the ability to exert some leverage," the U.S. official informed on the talks said. "If we shut ourselves out, others may have different standards."

Hanoi is reviewing a final draft of the trade pact and additional discussions are anticipated in the coming months, U.S. envoys said (Jay Solomon, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 3).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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