by Micah J. Loudermilk, Center for Strategic Research
During the last year of the George W. Bush administration, the United States pursued a number of civilian nuclear cooperation deals with countries around the world including, among others, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, and Vietnam. President Barack Obama, since taking office in 2009, has largely followed in the footsteps of his predecessor on this subject – concluding significant nuclear deals with both the UAE and India – whose civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. has been in the works since 2005.
Both of these agreements are important for their own reasons. On the Indian front, the civilian nuclear agreement puts the two countries on the path to full cooperation in exchange for India placing its civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. In regards to the UAE, President Obama signed a nuclear energy deal with the country in May 2009, opening the door for U.S. reactor builders in the UAE and closing the door on proliferation fears – as the UAE renounced uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. Additionally, agreements are currently being pursued with Vietnam and Jordan as well.
The UAE’s nuclear deal set the so-called “gold standard” for nuclear cooperation agreements as the nation foreswore both uranium enrichment and fuel reprocessing. This agreement is of paramount importance as it demonstrates the necessity of having the United States involved in the international nuclear fuel and energy markets. By using technology, equipment, and a fuel supply as bargaining chips, the government possesses the ability to heavily influence the open nuclear market. In doing so, the U.S. not only helps itself economically but, more importantly, can help to promote the safe and peaceful use of nuclear energy while minimizing or even eliminating the risks of proliferation inherent in the production of nuclear energy.
However, how long can this continue? With the U.S. nuclear energy industry dead domestically for over thirty years, much of the knowledge, technology, and expertise in the field has departed overseas. As time passes, the ability of the United States to control and influence such issues as reactor safety, fuel supply, safeguards, and IAEA monitoring of programs is waning rapidly. If the nuclear power industry remains dormant domestically, how much longer can the U.S. continue to exert power and influence on the industry globally while working to promote nonproliferation objectives? Nuclear power expansion at home may be extinct, but the creation of civilian nuclear energy programs internationally is expanding rapidly. Without advances in the field, the need for other countries to strike civilian nuclear agreements with the U.S. will begin to diminish and the global leader in nonproliferation efforts will eventually be forced into a backseat.