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Insistence on the “Gold Standard” in Nuclear Trade Will Harm U.S. Nonproliferation Goals

The following is a guest post written by NEI's Tom Kauffman. Though Tom now works in NEI's media relations shop, he spent 23 years working at Three Mile Island, seven of those as a licensed reactor operator. 

The authors of the recent Weekly Standard opinion piece “Hucksterism vs. Nonproliferation, Irreconcilable U.S. Nuclear Policies,” (subscription required) insist that the U.S. government condition all of its peaceful nuclear cooperation agreements with other nations on their renunciation of the technologies used for the enrichment of uranium or reprocessing of used fuel. Proponents of this restriction, known as the “Gold Standard,” claim it will raise a higher standard against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It would in fact have the opposite effect.

Because enrichment and reprocessing technologies can potentially be used to produce a nuclear weapon, it is important to restrain their spread. But proliferation of these technologies through legal nuclear energy trade isn’t an urgent problem. Most incidents of nuclear proliferation have occurred through dedicated military programs. Since the international Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was established in 1974, there have been no legal transfers of enrichment or reprocessing technologies to a country that did not already possess them.

There is a place for restrictions on legal transfers of enrichment and reprocessing, but they must be undertaken multilaterally in order to work. The United States is no longer the world’s dominant supplier of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Today, countries including Russia, France, South Korea, Canada, China, India and others, supply the majority of nuclear energy technology, equipment and services to an expanding global marketplace. The 46-nation NSG recently adopted tighter restrictions on transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technologies

To restrain nuclear trade partners from producing their own nuclear fuel, the United States is working to increase the reliability of the global fuel supply through fuel banks, and has encouraged its partners to rely on international markets. Where a partner country – such as the United Arab Emirates – has been willing to forswear enrichment and reprocessing within a nuclear cooperation agreement, the United States has properly included that commitment within the bilateral agreement. But U.S. insistence on the “Gold Standard” in all nuclear cooperation agreements is self-defeating for U.S. nonproliferation interests.

Experience has shown that very few nations are willing to accept the “Gold Standard.”  Since the United States opened negotiations for nuclear cooperation agreements with Vietnam and Jordan in 2010, both nations have made it clear they have no interest in forswearing enrichment and reprocessing technologies. As parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), they have agreed to forswear the right to acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for cooperation in peaceful nuclear energy. They strongly oppose, as a matter of principle, additional demands that they foreswear the right to make nuclear fuel, which they properly regard as a sovereign right that is protected by the NPT. Because other nuclear supply countries do not make the “Gold Standard” demand, Vietnam and Jordan do not need a U.S. cooperation agreement. Both countries have moved forward in partnership with other countries.

By preventing the conclusion of nuclear cooperation agreements, U.S. insistence on the “Gold Standard” has dealt a setback to nonproliferation standards and U.S. influence.  No other nuclear supplier matches the standards of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act and Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978, which include nonproliferation assurances and guarantees not required by other supplier countries. By withholding nuclear cooperation from countries such as Vietnam and Jordan that are developing nuclear energy for the first time, the United States will cede influence over their nuclear energy policies to other supplier countries that care less about nuclear proliferation than the United States.

Insisting on the “Gold Standard” harms other U.S. national interests as well.  As several former defense and national security officials explained in an April letter to the President , U.S. nuclear cooperation advances global nuclear power safety and reliability, U.S. leadership in nuclear energy technology, job creation through export growth, and maintenance of the U.S. manufacturing base for nuclear energy technology and services.

There is no doubt that the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity will continue to grow in the worldwide marketplace for the foreseeable future. Only by engaging in this market can the United States ensure that the expansion of nuclear energy is consistent with the highest standards for nuclear security and nonproliferation. Insistence on the Gold Standard in all nuclear cooperation agreements would have the opposite effect. It would isolate the United States from global nuclear energy development, lowering global standards for nuclear nonproliferation.


trag said…
Well said. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the president or the state department will listen to anything this sensible on the topic of nuclear energy. Sigh.
Anonymous said…
trag said: "... it seems unlikely that the president or the state department will listen to anything this sensible on the topic of nuclear energy. Sigh."

Just two days ago, President Obama announced his support for nuclear energy -- and in the context of addressing human-caused climate change.

It was not the proclamation of the Nuclear Millennium, but it was the beginning of a new era for nuclear energy. That's particularly important because Obama is considered to be a Liberal, and the received wisdom of 40 years of bad politicking is that Liberals are not permitted to be pro-nuclear.

Putting together a new set of initiatives for fuel reprocessing will require a lot of work and time, so I doubt that there will be an immediate push beyond securing a renewed commitment to nuclear energy. But after 40 years of inertia, this is a welcome change.
Don Kosloff said…
In the real world actions still speak louder than words. Who was the last U.S. President who presided over the permanent shut-down of 4 operating nuclear power plants, including one with one of the best operating histories in the industry? For extra points, who was the last Secretary of Energy who selected a UCS official as his or her chief of staff?
trag said…
Yes, as Don mentions, actions matter wildly more than words.

If you read Obama's speech carefully, what he actually seemed to say is that the USA is going to export its **regulatory framework** for nuclear power, not any actual nuclear electricity generation products -- just bureaucracy.

In actions, Obama appointed Jackzo chairman of the NRC. A man so incompetent, he was actually run out of hte agency, despite the patronage of Senator Reid and Representative Markey. A man so ignorant, that it wasn't until after he had been on the Commission for eight years that he noticed that nuclear reactor generate residual heat after shut down.

Who did Obama replace him with? MacFarlane. She's more subtle than Jackzo, but cut from teh same cloth. She's the corrupt shill who helped author a baseless geological report against the Yucca Mountain repository and another of Reid's pets.

His new energy secretary? A man so venal that he appointed a person with no energy credentials at all, from a unrelentingly anti-science organization as his chief of staff.

Additionally, NRC obstructionism has resulted in the premature shut down of at least three nuclear reactors in recent years. If Obama was nuclear friendly, would the NRC be operating in this manner?

All that talk of loan guarantees for new reactors? When it came down to it, more behind the scenes obstructionism made certain that the fewest possible reactors were actually offered guarantees, and then only in a region of the USA which lack the appearance of good sites for wind or solar.

No, Obama is no friend to nuclear. Or if he is, people on his staff are out-maneuvering him behind the scenes to ensure that his every action actually destroys the nuclear electricity industry in the USA.

The only bright spot is taht the rest of the world is moving forward. I am sad because I don't really want to live in a third world backwater with little industry and rolling blackouts, and utterly unreliable water and electricity utilities, but that's where we're headed. Soon, a couple of decades, and only the rich will be able to afford reliable water and electricity.

And yes, I voted for Obama. Sigh.
Anonymous said…
@ trag: "NRC obstructionism has resulted in the premature shut down of at least three nuclear reactors in recent years."

Citation needed, really.

Progress shot itself in the foot trying to DIY Crystal River's steam generator replacement. Progress didn't face any extra regulations in having to repair the containment -- you might as well blame ACI for its code requirements.

Southern California Edison's self-examination concluded it and Mitsubishi shot themselves in the foot by not properly analyzing the new SG design. That was the ultimate issue behind San Onofre's problems.

And where exactly did Dominion cite NRC regulations in concluding it couldn't make money with Kewaunee anymore? Talk to MISO and FERC about that. Please point out any NRC requirement that forced Kewaunee to shut.

And for the record, it really is bizarre Moniz would pick a UCS hack as chief of staff.

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