WASHINGTON -- A U.S. delegation visiting Vietnam is expected to initial a new nuclear-trade agreement with the Southeast Asian nation by the end of this week, according to sources and issue experts.
The Obama administration intended to urgently brief key members of Congress over the past week about the matter, but it is unclear whether any of the meetings took place.
Secretary of State John Kerry was in the region this week attending an Asian economic summit. The State Department did not respond by press time on Wednesday to questions about the U.S. delegation's visit to Vietnam -- which is not listed on Kerry's public travel schedule -- or the impending nuclear agreement.
Under a cooperative pact of this kind, Vietnam could gain access to sensitive U.S. atomic technologies, materials and know-how for its growing energy sector.
Once formally concluded and signed, the trade accord likely will be sent to Congress before the end of the year for a review period of 90 days of continuous session, Global Security Newswire has learned.
The pact could prove somewhat contentious among U.S. lawmakers, who have raised concerns about Vietnam's human rights record.
In addition, nonproliferation advocates have urged the White House to ensure that any trade accord of this kind include a pledge by Hanoi that it will not domestically produce nuclear fuel -- a process that could heighten the risk of contributing to any clandestine effort to build nuclear arms.
However, Vietnam repeatedly has said it would not accept any such fuel-production restrictions in a formal agreement with the United States.
As a result, Hanoi is not expected to make a legally binding commitment not to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium on its own soil, a provision that a State Department spokesman in 2009 dubbed the "gold standard" for nuclear-trade pacts. The administration has not yet publicly revealed the results of a long-running internal policy review on whether or how to apply this standard to future atomic cooperation agreements.
Vietnam may make some effort, though, to reassure the nonproliferation community, outside of the agreement text, GSN has learned.
Nuclear-trade experts were saying this week that the endgame for the agreement appears to be proceeding somewhat hastily after years of negotiations.
The Obama administration has "told no one whether or not they're pushing the gold standard in this agreement, and whether they've got it or not," said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. "It's clear there's a delegation going out -- they're going shopping for good relations. It's still a mystery as to why they're doing it now and when they'll get it done."