Obama's Nuclear Misstep

Why the president should reverse his nuclear-enrichment and reprocessing decision.

The world needs more energy, but it does not need new enrichment and reprocessing facilities for nations seeking to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Nations that already possess full-scale, functioning enrichment and reprocessing plants can provide these services to any country with a desire for nuclear power.

The enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel can be used for both peaceful as well as military purposes. Iran's announcement that it is loading a reactor with domestically produced fuel rods makes clear that now is not the time for new enrichment and reprocessing in new places. When countries express a desire for nuclear energy, the result is often regional instability.

The lesson is that we should not provide backing to the spread of enrichment and reprocessing to new countries. Sadly, I fear we are not observing this lesson sufficiently when it comes to concluding nuclear-cooperation agreements with new partners.

The United States does not currently transfer the technology to enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel to any country with which it has nuclear cooperation agreements—so-called 123 agreements after that section in the Atomic Energy Act. What the United States has done on rare occasions under such deals is consent to let a country reprocess nuclear material we export to them or that is produced in facilities we sell.

However, the United States and the United Arab Emirates took an important joint step forward when they concluded a nuclear pact that, for the first time, contained a commitment from the receiving country that it would neither enrich nor reprocess on its territory. This 123 agreement became known as "the Gold Standard."

My hope was that this agreement, done entirely outside of the requirements of existing law and in a bipartisan manner across the Bush and Obama administrations, would form a new basis for U.S. nuclear trade and internationalize the sound decision made by the UAE and the United States. Such a model could become a bulwark against further countries engaging in enrichment and reprocessing. Thus, it also could have meant fewer places for potential proliferators to gain access to such technology and materials.

Instead of making it a requirement for all new agreements, however, the administration announced in a recent letter to me that it has opted for a "case-by-case" approach with regard to the Gold Standard in new 123 agreements. I fear this means there will be few cases in which we shall see its return.

Arguments for not internationalizing the Gold Standard rest on infirm ground. Some express fears that the United States would be unable to get new nuclear-trade pacts with other countries if it insisted on the Gold Standard. The administration contends that sufficient nonproliferation controls would exist in new 123 agreements without the Gold Standard. It argues that if we are unable to conclude new agreements, we would lose lucrative nuclear commerce and the ability to control it.

But in fact, precious little has come in the way of new trade from recent 123 agreements. The administration appears to lack a credible strategy for achieving sales that would be needed to demonstrate that allowing new nations to enrich and reprocess would increase both U.S. nuclear exports and achieve U.S. nonproliferation objectives. Thus, we may be left with 123 agreements that result in neither sales nor nonproliferation controls.

Further, to retreat from the Gold Standard in such an environment would unfairly isolate the UAE and our agreement with that nation. In the case of the UAE, even as they opted not to buy American reactors, they nevertheless agreed not to enrich or reprocess—and thus bolstered their credibility and furthered nonproliferation interests that closely bind our two countries.

It is my strong recommendation that this decision to apply the Gold Standard only selectively be reversed, and promptly. American leadership in nonproliferation has been the basis for many of the established prerequisites for any nation contemplating nuclear trade. Indeed, Congressional leadership, through enactment of requirements governing peaceful nuclear cooperation with foreign nations, has resulted in substantial international nonproliferation and nuclear-trade gains.

Most recently, this was demonstrated in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1887, which encourages nuclear suppliers to require language in their agreements for nuclear cooperation that stems directly from section 123. The president still has the option to reverse this policy. It is my hope he will. If he does not, Congress must provide needed leadership.

Richard G. Lugar is ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and coauthor of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program.