U.S. Nuclear Trade Policy Concerns Mounting on Capitol Hill

U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman, shown in 2010. Three of four top-ranking lawmakers on the House and Senate foreign affairs panels oppose a policy outlined by Poneman and other Obama administration officials to approach nonproliferation measures on a "case-by-case" basis in nuclear trade negotiations (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze).
U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman, shown in 2010. Three of four top-ranking lawmakers on the House and Senate foreign affairs panels oppose a policy outlined by Poneman and other Obama administration officials to approach nonproliferation measures on a "case-by-case" basis in nuclear trade negotiations (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze).

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has added her name to a growing bipartisan list of influential lawmakers protesting a newly unveiled Obama administration policy on nuclear trade and nonproliferation (see GSN, Jan. 23).

Three of the four top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate foreign affairs panels have issued plaintive letters on the matter over the past three weeks.

Officials with the State and Energy departments last month notified key congressional committees that an interagency policy review after more than a year had endorsed a “case-by-case” approach to nuclear trade negotiations, and the policy would be applied to new U.S. talks with Vietnam. 

In doing so, the administration rejected calls from both political parties to seek assurances from international trade partners on nonproliferation provisions before Washington would ink cooperative deals to provide sensitive nuclear energy technologies, materials and expertise.

Advocates have said that at a minimum, a stricter nonproliferation standard should be upheld in the volatile Middle East.  It is unclear, though, whether such an approach would be implemented in an anticipated trade pact with Jordan, or with other regional states seeking access to the U.S. nuclear industry.

Pressure from Capitol Hill has focused on replicating a promise the Obama team received from the United Arab Emirates in a 2009 deal not to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium on UAE soil.  A State Department spokesman branded this “no-ENR” pledge the “gold standard” for future U.S. nuclear commerce pacts.

However, administration officials in 2010 told Capitol Hill that atomic trade deals in the works with Vietnam and Jordan might not meet the newly minted gold standard.  Lawmaker alarm at the apparent policy backtrack spurred the administration review that led to the case-by-case policy outlined in a Jan. 10 letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate foreign affairs panels.

In a Feb. 14 letter, obtained by Global Security Newswire, Ros-Lehtinen registered her opposition to what she called “this reversal of policy” and urged the administration to reconsider its decision.  She also included a not-too-subtle threat.

“Failure to fully address this issue will inevitably result in corrective action by the Congress,” the 12-term lawmaker wrote to the senior officials who signed the administration’s letter, Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman and senior State Department official Ellen Tauscher.  Tauscher early this month stepped down as undersecretary of State for arms control and nonproliferation, but remains at State as a special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense issues.

Ros-Lehtinen’s letter follows a similar missive by Representative Howard Berman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  He wrote to Tauscher and Poneman on Jan. 27 to express his own concerns about the emerging administration policy, GSN has learned.

In that letter -- an unusual policy rebuke by a legislative leader from President Obama’s own party -- Berman said he would oppose any pact with Vietnam that emerges from the ongoing negotiations if it does not contain a “credible” ENR provision, according to congressional sources.

The lawmaker’s red line appears to have been prompted by the absence of a firm administration commitment to condition an agreement on a no-ENR pledge by the Southeast Asian nation or even to promote the merits of such a nonproliferation step.

“Our team will explain to Vietnam the procedures in the United States for congressional review, and lay out a spectrum of options for addressing enrichment and reprocessing in a 123 agreement,” the Tauscher-Poneman policy letter stated.

The wording of Berman’s letter could still leave some wiggle room for the administration to earn the high-ranking House Democrat’s support, according to sources.  U.S. envoys might be able to negotiate ENR assurances from Hanoi that do not necessarily match the UAE pledge, but that do erect comparable barriers to proliferation, these issue experts said.

Ros-Lehtinen and Berman last year co-sponsored legislation, dubbed H.R. 1280, that if enacted would strengthen the ability of Congress to reject nuclear trade accords that lawmakers find problematic (see GSN, April 15, 2011).

Poneman on Friday said some of the lawmaker worries appear to be without basis.

“I think a lot of the concerns that I have seen expressed relate to a policy that does not exist,” said the Energy deputy secretary, speaking at a three-day symposium on nuclear deterrence in Arlington, Va.  “There is actually a significant amount of misunderstanding that underpins what seems to be a conflict that may not be.”

The nonproliferation objectives being sought by lawmakers are shared by the Obama administration, he said.

“We have not changed our policy.  We have not given up,” Poneman said.  “Our objective, like I believe everyone on Capitol Hill, is to minimize the spread of these dangerous technologies.  The only question is the best way to do it.  We have found over time that the case-by-case approach has been the most successful in permitting this.”

Enrichment or reprocessing can be used for energy production, but also can increase the risk that a nation would secretly divert sensitive materials to the development of nuclear arms. Iran is widely believed to have proceeded down that path under the cloak of a civil power program, but has long insisted that its efforts remain entirely peaceful.

From the administration’s perspective, Washington might have more influence on nonproliferation concerns with its trade partners if it retains a freer negotiating hand, and in the process can offer a boost to the flagging U.S. nuclear sector.

“We need to negotiate agreements that our partners can accept and that open doors to U.S. industry,” according to last month’s Tauscher-Poneman policy letter.  “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.”

In remarks at this week’s symposium, Poneman argued that proposals for offering U.S. comprehensive fuel services to partner states could effectively allow foreign nuclear energy activities to proceed without a need for enrichment or reprocessing inside the borders of those nations.

“It has always been U.S. policy to approach each potential 123 agreement on a case-by-case basis, so that it can be negotiated with regard to the specifics of the country involved,” Poneman said, referring to nuclear trade pacts governed by Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act.  “There is a misperception that by not having legally binding language in place [in a trade pact] that the United States is advocating the transfer of sensitive technologies.  This is not the case.

“Further, nothing precludes us from asking for legally binding language on ENR, under case-by-case consideration,” he added.

President Obama “envisions an international framework that supports access to nuclear energy by those who wish to access, done in a safe, secure, responsible way,” Ed McGinnis, deputy assistant Energy secretary for international nuclear energy policy and cooperation, said at a Jan. 24 nuclear industry event.  “And whereby the access is realized without increasing risks of proliferation.”

A growing number of policy experts, though, argue that the case-by-case approach holds sparse hope of achieving that goal.  Even if U.S. nuclear trade negotiators vigorously pursue the gold standard in coming months and years, the Tauscher-Poneman letter could undermine that effort by signaling interlocutor nations that they could hold out for a deal that omits any enrichment or processing prohibition, said one congressional staffer.

The policy letter “robbed us of any credibility in pursuing [the gold standard] with anyone else,” the senior Senate aide said this week.  This congressional source and several others spoke on condition of not being named, saying they were not authorized to address the matter publicly.

It is unclear whether more permissive terms for Washington’s nuclear trade partners would result in increased sales for the U.S. atomic energy industry, which has found it challenging to compete against French, South Korean and Russian companies that typically offer lower prices thanks to government subsidies, according to issue experts.

“So then you’ve got a hollow 123 [pact] with no sales, but now also no nonproliferation pledge, either,” the Senate staffer said.

Ros-Lehtinen also warned the policy determination could make it yet more difficult to handle the simmering crisis surrounding Iran.

“This reversal on an issue of central importance to U.S. national security cannot but undermine our urgent efforts to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, as the U.S. apparently will now be in the business of promoting nuclear programs throughout the Middle East and beyond, perhaps even including countries that are interested in their use for military purposes,” according to her new letter.

Ros-Lehtinen's reference appeared directed at Saudi Arabia, a Persian Gulf nation with which Obama administration officials have said they might pursue a nuclear cooperation agreement (see GSN, July 28, 2011).  A member of the Saudi ruling family has warned on multiple occasions that his nation would develop or acquire atomic arms if rival Iran succeeds in making a nuclear weapon (see GSN, Jan. 26).

Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) -- who has written the State Department twice since 2010 to urge use of the gold standard in upcoming atomic trade pacts – joined the fray again late last week.

As ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lugar formally asked panel Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) to hold a hearing “in the near future” on the trade policy’s “implications for U.S. security from nuclear threats,” according to the text, also obtained by GSN.

Lugar’s letter to Kerry followed an informal agreement by the committee’s Democratic and Republican staff directors to schedule such an event, which was to feature administration witnesses and possibly additional testimony by issue experts, according to Capitol Hill sources. However, committee plans for the hearing were canceled without explanation and Kerry has not yet responded to Lugar’s written request, said one Senate aide.

The administration and its supporters on the issue might hope “that the issue will just go away if they try to ignore it,” said the senior Senate aide.  “I think that’s a grave misperception.”

The flurry of lawmaker letters on the issue comes alongside an editorial in the New York Times decrying what it dubbed the “bronze standard,” and an opinion piece by Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and John Bolton, a former arms control official and ambassador to the United Nations under the George W. Bush administration.

If the Obama policy stands, “America will likely soon find itself in the inadvertent business of helping a multitude of countries pursue their deadly nuclear ambitions,” the two political opposites concluded in the Christian Science Monitor commentary.

“In a poisonous partisan environment, finally there is one thing that people who don’t normally work together can agree on,” Henry Sokolski, who directs the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said in a Thursday interview.  “No one in their right minds believes nuclear salesmanship should supersede security.”

Sokolski collaborated with Foreign Policy Initiative head Jamie Fly on a Feb. 14 letter to Obama, signed by 20 conservative defense experts, recommending an about-face on the policy.

“Rather than abandon efforts to tighten nonproliferation controls on civil nuclear exports, the United States should be leveraging access to our market to encourage French, Russian, and Asian nuclear suppliers to tighten their own rules to meet the nonproliferation gold standard,” according to the signatories, which include former Defense Department policy head Eric Edelman, former national security adviser Steven Hadley and former nuclear nonproliferation envoy Robert Joseph.

Speaking on Friday, Poneman said he thinks further administration engagement with Capitol Hill should help resolve the growing policy debate.

“We look forward to continuing that discussion,” he said.  “And I feel confident that that discussion will provide an outcome that all of us can support.”

February 17, 2012

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has added her name to a growing bipartisan list of influential lawmakers protesting a newly unveiled Obama administration policy on nuclear trade and nonproliferation.