Share | Contact Us | NPEC Email Alerts |
Articles Working Papers & Monographs Interviews Official Docs & Letters Op-Eds & Blogs Press Releases Presentations Audio & Video Testimony & Transcripts Translations


Follow @NuclearPolicy to be the first in on NPEC's latest research

More of NPEC’s Work
A chronological listing by resource:

Articles | Working Papers & Monographs | Interviews | Official Docs & Letters | Op-Eds & Blogs | Press Releases | Presentations | Audio & Video | Testimony & Transcripts | Translations
NPEC's Executive Director Gives Testimony at House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing "The Future of International Civilian Nuclear Cooperation."

Testimony of NPEC's executive director as presented to the House Foreign Affairs Committee's hearing on July 10, 2014, "The Future of International Civilian Nuclear Cooperation."

His full written testimony is also available.

See the House Foreign Affairs Committees website for additional witness testimony and a video of the hearing.


Jul 10, 2014
AUTHOR: Henry D. Sokolski

 Will Congress Oversee US Nuclear Cooperation?


Mr. Royce, Mr. Engel, Members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to this important hearing. Before I begin, I ask permission that my full testimony and several brief items be placed in the record.

Mr. Chairman, when I last appeared before this committee, it was considering legislation that would have significantly strengthened the role of Congress in approving U.S. nuclear cooperative agreements.

The committee unanimously approved this legislation, but after industry objected, it never went to the floor.  That was three years ago.  

Congress now has almost no hand in shaping nuclear cooperation agreements. It can continue to let the Executive send up more agreements and allow them to come into force, but if Congress does, it will leave itself powerless to deal with 3 issues:

FIRST: Possible unilateral executive authorization of Chinese reprocessing of hundreds of bombs’ worth of plutonium each year from spent fuel produced in US-designed reactors. China recently announced it will buy a so-called “peaceful” reprocessing plant from France, and locate it at China’s original weapons plutonium-production site. This will obviously have military significance. Under the current US-China nuclear agreement, the Executive can authorize China to reprocess materials from eight US-designed reactors that will be operating in China. Congress has no say. This understanding expires December 2015 and must be renegotiated. Does Congress want to continue to have no say? Under the Committee’s stalled 2011 legislation, each Chinese reprocessing request would require Congressional approval. I would urge the Committee to reconsider that 2011 bill by marking up the identical Ileana Ros Lehtinen-Brad Sherman legislation, H.R.3766.

SECOND: The elimination of periodic required reviews of nuclear agreements. Most US nuclear agreements are for a fixed term and must be renegotiated. The Vietnam nuclear deal, however, stays in force in perpetuity unless one of the parties asks and succeeds in getting it renegotiated. The executive is sure to push this approach in future deals until all US 123 agreements automatically renew without presentment to Congress.  Again, this will occur unless Congress acts to limit the practice. Given the Vietnam deal is hardly urgent, it would be best to have the Executive withdraw it until this is fixed.

THIRD: The executive creating precedents that will make it virtually impossible to resist Saudi, Turkish, and South Korean calls to reprocess or enrich.  The Executive is negotiating with Iran and South Korea over enriching and reprocessing.  The Vietnam deal, a kind of mini-India nuclear deal that undermines the Gold Standard nonproliferation standard contained in the UAE and Taiwanese agreements, sets a poor precedent on both of these diplomatic fronts.  Unless Congress overrules industry’s current veto on legislating on these matters, expect more hand-wringing, Iran-like crises to emerge in the Far and Middle East.    

Two additional notes.  

Industry and the State Department argue that if Congress votes on agreements that don’t meet tough nonproliferation conditions, the agreements are dead on arrival, with a loss of US business and jobs. But in pushing for “lowest common denominator” agreements, State has its priorities backwards. Our government should be trying to convince other nuclear suppliers to raise their nonproliferation standards.  The US can, but it needs to take the initiative.

Finally, although it's hardly sound to give up important security positions because of promised jobs, it is ridiculous to do so when such promises are hugely exaggerated. India, we were told, was a $100 billion nuclear market for the US.  Nine years after that deal was announced, though, no US reactors have been sold. Yet, by exempting India from restrictive NPT rules we did great harm to that Treaty and our nonproliferation efforts globally. The GAO recently noted that the US doesn’t track America’s actual nuclear exports. The committee should look into this and demand real numbers on exports of 123-controlled goods.  On these matters, Congress should not be sold a bill of goods.


Related Questions and Answers

a. Why is industry so opposed to having Congress vote on agreements that don’t meet the Gold Standard? 

 Answer:  Unclear.  Some industry people have privately told me that they oppose any legislative initiative that would inject uncertainty to the current story board that nuclear power’s global expansion is inevitable and that ultimately additional government support of the industry now—e.g., relaxing controls, soft-pedaling new safety requirements, funding EX-IM, etc.—will produce massive dividends latter.

b. Isn’t industry immovable in its opposition? 

 Answer:  Perhaps, but when you go to the leading nuclear lobbying site, it complains about DoE regulations – Part 810 rules – over the transfer of nuclear know-how as being the major impediment to US nuclear exports not 123 restrictions.  This suggests a possible leverage point.

c. How much nuclear weapons-usable plutonium might be generated per year from US designed reactors operating in China?  

 Answer:  1,600 kilograms or enough to make 400 inefficient Nagasaki designed bombs.

d. Where exactly is China planning to locate the reprocessing plant France has agreed to sell it? 

 Answer:  At Jiuquan, China’s first military plutonium production site.

e. Why should we be worried about China making bombs from power reactor plutonium? Don’t they already have bombs? 

 Answer:  Two reasons.  First, China is reported to have only a few hundred nuclear warheads but if Japan decides to make additional weapons-usable materials or acquires nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons requirements could be driven upward, possibly to cold war levels – i.e., in the thousands of weapons and beyond.  Also, given the corruption in the civilian nuclear field, and the lack of sound accounting for nuclear plutonium production, nuclear security issues in China would be significantly aggravated. 

f. Why isn’t approving the US-Vietnam agreement all that urgent? 

 Answer:  Vietnam recently announced it had put off the date it planned to begin to build its first reactor (a Russian machine) by six years, i.e., until 2020.  As a practical matter, this first machine will be fueled with Russian, not US fuel assemblies.  Delaying this deal to strengthen it should not cost America jobs or exports.  As for concrete military strategic tradeoffs or links, there are none.  

g. What other 123 agreements currently have the perpetuity feature that the Vietnam deal has? 

 Answer:  The Turkish 123, which Congress failed to hold any hearings on; the Japanese 123, which otherwise would terminate in 2018; and the agreement that will be struck with Taiwan, which has agreed to uphold the gold standard.

h. What should the US do regarding these other “perpetuity” agreements? 

 Answer:   As a matter of form, the US should ask that they be renegotiated when they otherwise would terminate.  Each agreement allows for renegotiation at the request of either party.  At a minimum such pro forma demands would assure routine and proper oversight and help clarify the party’s policies regarding enrichment and reprocessing, as well as other issues. 

i. Is there really any reason to worry that Vietnam might go nuclear? 

 Answer: Not now but in 30 years’ time, anything, including increased military tensions with China, are possible.  The US did not think Iran would be a problem when it struck a 123 with it in the 1950s. Luckily, the Iran deal sunsetted just before the Shah fell.  If it hadn’t, there possibly would be a 123 agreement in force with Iran today.

j. Has the US ever withdrawn an agreement and strengthened it?  

 Answer:  Yes, it already has done this at least once with the Vietnam 123 and, as a result, got Vietnam to make a nonbinding political commitment not to enrich or reprocess.  It also withdrew the UAE agreement to strengthen it at least once to get legally binding language on reprocessing and enrichment.  Finally, the US withdrew its signed agreement with Russia when it invaded Georgia.

k. What leverage does the US have to get other nuclear suppliers to adopt tougher nonproliferation conditions on their nuclear exports? 

 Answer:  Plenty.  The key “US” nuclear exporters, Westinghouse and GE, are largely Japanese-owned firms now and both Korea and Japan are America’s closest security allies.  Also, both states still depend heavily on US nuclear expertise and advice.  France, meanwhile, is a major US government contractor in disposing of surplus US weapons plutonium.  It receives hundreds of millions of dollars for its work each year. More important, France cannot compete against Russia or China on price any more than any of the other nuclear suppliers can.  As a result, isolating Russia and China for their lax quality control, safety, and nonproliferation policies has advantages.  France has begun publicizing the safety problems with Chinese nuclear construction.  We should too in the lead up to the renegotiation of the US China nuclear 123.  We also should take a similar approach with Russia and offer to renew our nuclear cooperation with Moscow to resolve its safety issues if it will adopt tougher nonproliferation conditions on its exports. 

l. Has the US ever succeeded in getting others to adopt its nonproliferation conditions after it has taken the lead?  

 Answer:  Yes.  In the early 90s, the US was alone in controlling dual use nuclear export goods but succeeded after it took the lead in convincing all of the Nuclear Supplier States to adopt similar nonproliferation restrictions.

m. What GAO report are you referring to that said USG tracking of America’s nuclear exports is sloppy and inadequate? 

 Answer:  Government-wide Strategy Could Help Increase Commercial Benefits from U.S. Nuclear Cooperation Agreements with Other Countries, GAO 11-36, November 2010, available at   This report notes that to export any equipment directly related to the reactor's primary system (which is about 15% of the total plant) you have to get a reactor export license (formally called a production or utilization facility). But once you have the license NRC does not follow what actually goes out. It may be a lot or very little. Commerce is supposed to track this but, according to the GAO, really doesn't. So we really don't know what goes out. Congress should nail this down.  

n. If industry and the Executive are unwilling to bend, what should Congress do? 

Answer:  Act.  The only alternative is doing nothing and risk being implicated in future nuclear proliferation train wrecks or Congress going AWOL – i.e., totally getting out of the way by giving all of its current marginal oversight functions regarding 123s, back to the Executive.  Neither is desirable.

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
1600 Wilson Blvd. | Suite 640 | Arlington, VA 22209 | phone: 571-970-3187 |