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Reports Nuclear Energy

Reconsidering US Nuclear Cooperation Agreements

This report represents the research and views of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of the Center on Global Energy Policy. The piece may be subject to further revision. Contributions to SIPA for the benefit of CGEP are general use gifts, which gives the Center discretion in how it allocates these funds. More information is available at Our Partners. Rare cases of sponsored projects are clearly indicated. For a full list of financial supporters of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University SIPA, please visit our website at Our Partners. See below a list of members that are currently in CGEP’s Visionary Annual Circle.

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Occidental Petroleum Corporation

Executive Summary

Despite having played a central role in the creation of the international nuclear commercial sector, today the United States is increasingly on the outside looking in when it comes to civil nuclear projects. The United States now accounts for a relatively small number of new reactor builds, both at home and abroad. There are a few rays of sunshine for the US nuclear industry, especially when it comes to new technology. In fact, many of the new reactor builds that are underway do involve US technology and intellectual property, even if others are performing the construction. To take advantage of a similar dynamic, US innovators are looking to both new and forgotten designs as a way of managing the challenges of nuclear fuel manufacture, safety, waste management, security cost, and proliferation. But these new technologies face an uncertain future (and so consequently does the US role), even notwithstanding the advantages nuclear energy would bring to managing climate change and the edge the United States may have in their development.

Various factors account for the challenges facing the US nuclear industry, including the complex political, economic, scientific, and popular environment around nuclear technology and civil nuclear energy. Of the various problems potentially plaguing US nuclear energy policy, one remains both difficult to address and controversial: US requirements for nuclear cooperation, and in particular, the demand from many in Congress and the nonproliferation community that the United States insist on binding commitments from its cooperating partners to forswear developing enrichment and reprocessing technology. While this policy is not responsible for the decline of the US nuclear industry, it adds additional hindrance to US nuclear commerce abroad and may even be to the long-term detriment of US nonproliferation policy interests.

If so, then the questions that arise are whether this is in the US interest and, if not, how the US ought to respond. If the government believes that having a role in international nuclear commerce is advisable on both economic and strategic grounds, then it needs to decide whether to commit resources to incentivize foreign partners to overlook the problems its nonproliferation policies may cause these partners or seek modifications to those policies.

From a pure nonproliferation perspective,  it would be preferable for the United States to invest in its nuclear industry to ensure it is competitive globally. But, this does not seem to be a likely course of action for the United States given the myriad political, legal, and budgetary complexities that would be involved. Consequently, this paper recommends several changes to how US nuclear cooperation agreements are negotiated as well as enhancements to overall US nuclear nonproliferation policies. In aggregate, they seek to rebalance and reformulate some aspects of US nuclear nonproliferation policy to make it more effective and efficient, particularly regarding engagement in civil nuclear commerce, but without compromising the core nonproliferation interests the current US diplomatic approach seeks to advance.

With respect to nuclear cooperation agreements, the paper recommends the following:

  1. Relaxing the current US preference for a legally binding commitment to forswear all enrichment and reprocessing capabilities indefinitely for these agreements, while continuing traditional US policy to discourage these technologies development through various means.
  2. Relying on enhanced inspector access and improved verification tools, technology, and practices to provide confidence on the nondiversion of civil nuclear cooperation rather than assurances regarding enrichment and reprocessing that, in any event, are potentially revocable.
  3. Adopting a favorable view of “black box” transfers of nuclear power reactors and building this into policy as new, advanced reactor concepts are being explored, developed, and marketed.
  4. Creating a new sanctions regime to cover countries that pursue enrichment and reprocessing capabilities after concluding a 123 agreement.  

With respect to nuclear nonproliferation policy more generally, the paper recommends the following:

  1. Developing an annual nonproliferation indicators publication to identify trends in proliferation, including the kinds of goods that proliferators are potentially seeking. This document would also include a list of countries where there are presently enhanced concerns regarding national nuclear programs or concerns about transshipment and export control risk. Its objective would not be to serve as a proxy for future sanctions designations decisions but rather to give a broad perspective of the challenges that exist with particular jurisdictions even—and perhaps especially—if there is no need or justification for sanctions at present.
  2. Developing a warning system for sought-after goods. The United States should work with industry to develop a restricted database that identifies sensitive goods that are being sought. This database would be accessible to corporate compliance officers, who would be vetted for access to the information. Within it, the database could also include additional information about the sorts of tactics being employed by proliferators.
  3. Making greater use of end use verification as a means of facilitating monitoring of the nonproliferation commitments of countries, particularly regarding dual use technology. This could also be built out to include greater collaboration with partner countries and companies.
  4. Amending Executive Order 13382, which provides for sanctions against proliferators of weapons of mass destruction, to add a prong of “willful negligence.”  

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Reports Nuclear Energy

Reconsidering US Nuclear Cooperation Agreements