Nuclear Trade Agreements: Not All That Glitters Is Gold
Katie Tubb /
The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held an important hearing on 123 agreements—that is, agreements the U.S. makes with other countries that govern the exchange of components used in commercial nuclear power.
It has been the consistent stance of the U.S. to minimize the proliferation of nuclear weapons. From the start, 123 agreements have been tools to advance America’s nonproliferation goals through legitimate commercial nuclear trade. This continues to be the standard.
Here are some of the highlights of what was discussed:
- The 123 agreements are a powerful tool for advancing peaceful nuclear cooperation. As established in the Atomic Energy Act, partner nations legally commit to international safeguards and verifiable protection of materials and agree not to enrich, reprocess, or transfer nuclear materials without U.S. approval. If 123 agreements are made more burdensome or the process more uncertain, nonproliferation goals would be obstructed before there are even any commercial agreements.
- Requiring that 123 agreements be uniform or forbid enrichment and reprocessing from the outset would be “self-defeating.” Such standards, as similarly proposed in H.R. 3766, would discourage countries from entertaining nuclear trade with the U.S., which results in lost opportunities to integrate America’s high safety and transparency standards in the programs of partnering nations. For most countries, neither enrichment nor reprocessing are economical options to be considered. However, turning a practical negotiation into a theoretical question on a nation’s sovereignty distracts from the main purpose of the agreements—to achieve the highest level of nonproliferation possible through commercial nuclear cooperation.
- Treating countries differently does not imply that 123 agreements are ad hoc agreements. Though only the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has forsworn enrichment and reprocessing, the 23 agreements with other nations—each with their own unique provisions—have successfully limited the spread of illegitimate nuclear activity while also opening the door for America’s nuclear industry to compete in the international market. The U.S. should continue to take the unique circumstances of different countries into account.
There is room for reforming the 123 agreement process, but requiring a UAE “gold standard” is not it. Doing so would further hinder not only America’s commercial nuclear industry but also the safety and nonproliferation benefits America has to offer.