Nuclear energy 'cooperation,' with a twist

Nuclear energy 'cooperation,' with a twist
© ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration has come under scrutiny from Congress and the nonproliferation policy community about its approval of commercial nuclear dealings with Saudi Arabia, prior to the completion of a nuclear cooperation agreement between the two countries. While it is important for the administration to adhere to long-established U.S. nonproliferation practices, these activities are not the most consequential shift in U.S. nuclear energy cooperation policymaking in the Trump administration.

Since taking office, President TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE has adopted a confrontational stance toward commercial nuclear development by Russian and Chinese companies who are building commercial nuclear power reactors domestically and exporting them abroad. The administration’s approach — in which it has labeled the countries “predatory revisionists” — threatens nuclear nonproliferation far more than the administration’s support of U.S. nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia, or any country, for that matter.

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In criticizing the practices of Russian and Chinese nuclear energy suppliers, administration officials have emphasized — among a range of criticisms — how neither China nor Russia subscribes to all of the stringent nonproliferation standards of supply that the United States does. To ensure that commercial nuclear trade doesn’t lead to nuclear weapons development, U.S. officials argue, the United States needs to be more aggressive in pursuing international nuclear energy trade, which would enable it to set global nonproliferation standards through its cooperative arrangements with partner countries.

This position, however, undercuts rather than supports nonproliferation policymaking globally. Both China and Russia are currently the most active suppliers within the global nuclear energy marketplace, and are likely to be for the foreseeable future, regardless of the level of U.S. nuclear energy exports, as demand for nuclear energy grows in Asia and the Middle East. Both are also members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the nuclear supply cartel that the United States helped found in the 1970s. As such, they limit the supply of nuclear technologies and materials to countries that have specific nuclear nonproliferation standards in place, just as all NSG members (including the United States) are required to do.

In criticizing China and Russia, U.S. officials have argued that neither country requires recipients of nuclear assistance to have in place the most stringent type of safeguards — those spelled out in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol — against the diversion of nuclear materials and technologies to use in nuclear weapons development. U.S. officials also argue that these suppliers should limit the ability of their nuclear partners to develop sensitive nuclear technologies, such as uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technologies.

By attempting to unilaterally raise the baseline nonproliferation requirements for all commercial nuclear trade, U.S. officials are undercutting the salience of those requirements that the NSG and other nonproliferation efforts do enforce. Universal adherence to the Additional Protocol would be a welcome development, as would the concentration of all sensitive nuclear technologies in a few controlled locations. But it is counterproductive for the United States to criticize supplier states for embracing most, but not all, of the nonproliferation standards it supports.

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In confronting stringent U.S. nonproliferation requirements, recipient states could begin to question the value of adopting other nonproliferation standards besides the Additional Protocol. And some supply countries could require even less-restrictive nonproliferation standards solely to maintain their competitiveness. Making it more difficult for states to acquire U.S.-origin nuclear technology will also increase the political resentment of states designated as non-nuclear weapons states by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), who already question the commitment of nuclear supplier states to ensuring access to peaceful nuclear technologies. This threatens to further erode the standing of the NPT, as it goes into the 2020 Review Conference.

If the Trump administration were genuinely interested in using civilian nuclear cooperation to enhance global nonproliferation, it would try to find ways to work with other nuclear supplier countries — including Russia and China — to ensure the adequate supply of nuclear technologies and materials in a manner that promulgates all nuclear nonproliferation standards, not just those that are most important to the United States.

This rationale lay behind the U.S. push for China to join the NSG in the first place. China’s supply of nuclear technologies to Pakistan aside, its membership in the NSG makes it more likely that its nuclear exports will meet existing NSG requirements than if it were outside of the group. Instead of criticizing China for not doing something that it never agreed not to do, the United States should work within the NSG to make adoption of the Additional Protocol mandatory for the supply of nuclear technologies and materials by NSG suppliers.

Similarly, if the United States is concerned about those countries that receive Russian nuclear assistance obtaining sensitive nuclear technologies, then it should work with Russian officials and scientists to develop international means of providing assured supplies of nuclear fuel and of disposing of spent nuclear fuel. The development of such capacities would go a long way toward limiting the means of making the sensitive nuclear materials that are necessary for creating a nuclear weapon.

International nuclear energy cooperation can help to limit nuclear weapons proliferation if delivered with sufficient incentives — such as the promise of valuable technology, materials and expertise. But trying to twist the arm of suppliers without offering much of value in return is not likely to get the United States any closer to its nonproliferation objectives.

Jonas Siegel is associate director of the Center for International & Security Studies at Maryland, University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He has led several research initiatives related to the center’s Nuclear Past, Present, and Future program. He previously was the editor of the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.” Follow on Twitter @UMDPublicPolicy.