The nuclear energy industry is pushing to keep a critical export agreement with China on the books beyond the end of this year.
A nuclear cooperation agreement that allows United States companies to export their products and technologies to China expires in December. President Obama proposed a 30-year extension of that agreement in April, which the American nuclear industry says will allow it to continue working in the country.
Congress has the right to block or modify that agreement, and concerns about nuclear nonproliferation could hinder it at some point. But key lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they support the idea of a nuclear cooperation pact, and industry officials are hopeful the new version takes hold this year.
“Even where the Russians may have brought in financing, or the Koreans may have underbid folks, there is still the desire to have the American supply chain come in,” said David Blee, the executive director of the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council, a business group.
The United States’ agreement with China has been on the books for 30 years, but Congress initially blocked the deal over nonproliferation concerns. Lawmakers let the agreement take effect in 1998.
Since then, U.S. companies have looked to play a bigger role in China’s growing nuclear industry. Right now, China only gets about 2 percent of its electricity from nuclear. But the country is building 24 new reactors — more than 35 percent of the reactors under construction in the world today — and the industry expects even more to come soon.
Westinghouse Electric Co. signed an agreement in 2007 to export its rector technology to the country, and the company currently has four units under construction there today.
“This [agreement] is really important for the U.S., to be able to keep the promises made to it by China about how they would use the technology and how the program would work,” Westinghouse CEO Daniel Roderick said at an event hosted by The Hill and sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute last week. “It’s something that is very important to U.S. business, to stay [accessible] to that market.”
Geopolitical issues could cause Obama’s proposed agreement some problems in Congress. Members are likely to scrutinize the plan’s nuclear nonproliferation protections to make sure they’re strong enough to block future nuclear weapon development in Asia.
The Obama administration, looking to head off those concerns, gave Congress documentation highlighting the agreement’s nonproliferation components, and officials have testified on Capitol Hill about what they say are beefed-up rules.
“Implementing this agreement will better position the United States to continue influence the Chinese government in a positive direction on nonproliferation objectives,” Thomas Countryman, the assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau Of International Security And Nonproliferation, said at a May hearing.
Both Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (R-Tenn.) and ranking Democrat Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinIt's time to make access to quality kidney care accessible and equitable for all Charity game lets users bet on elections Progressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program MORE (D-Md.) have said they're concerned about China’s nonproliferation policies, which could be addressed in the nuclear agreement.
“It will now be up to Congress to determine if the concerns about the agreement are outweighed by the benefits,” Corker said in May. “If so, we should approve the agreement without delay. If not, but the concerns can be mitigated, we should work diligently to find grounds upon which we can support the agreement. If the concerns cannot be alleviated, we should disapprove the agreement.”
Still, both senators have endorsed the idea of a nuclear cooperation agreement.
Cardin said it gives the U.S. the chance to enforce nonproliferation policies, help countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and increase American business overseas.
“The enormous growth in Chinese nuclear power generation represents a major opportunity for U.S. businesses, and one they have already taken advantage of,” he said.
The nuclear industry was emboldened by Obama’s proposed agreement in April. If Congress steps in and changes it, Blee said, that would require another round of negotiations between the U.S. and China, which he said would be a “showstopper.”
“We are hopeful, and ultimately optimistic, that the Congress will see the merits of approving the [agreement] as proposed,” Blee added.
This article is part of America's Nuclear Energy Future series, sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). For more information about NEI, visit nei.org/futureofenergy.