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.