President Obama has notified Congress that he intends to renew a nuclear cooperation agreement with China. The deal would allow Beijing to buy more U.S.-designed reactors and pursue a facility or the technology to reprocess plutonium from spent fuel. China would also be able to buy reactor coolant technology that experts say could be adapted to make its submarines quieter and harder to detect.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to hear from five Obama officials in a closed-door meeting today to weigh the commercial, political and security implications of extending the accord. The private session will permit discussion of a classified addendum from the director of national intelligence analyzing China’s nuclear export control system and what Obama’s notification called its “interactions with other countries of proliferation concern.”
The new agreement should clear the way for U.S. companies to sell dozens of nuclear reactors to China, the biggest nuclear power market in the world.
Yet the new version of the nuclear accord — known as a 123 agreement under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 — would give China leeway to buy U.S. nuclear energy technology at a sensitive moment: The Obama administration has been trying to rally support among lawmakers and the public for a deal that would restrict Iran’s nuclear program — a deal negotiated with China’s support.
Congress can vote to block the agreement, but if it takes no action during a review period, the agreement goes into effect. If Congress rejects the deal, “that would allow another country with lower levels of proliferation controls to step in and fill that void,
Although the current nuclear agreement with China does not expire until the end of the year, the administration had to give Congress notice with 90 legislative days left on the clock. Obama also hopes to seal a global climate deal in December featuring China — less than three weeks before the current nuclear accord expires.
The United States has bilateral 123 agreements with 22 countries, plus Taiwan, for the peaceful use of nuclear power. Some countries that do not have such agreements, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Malaysia, have expressed interest in clearing obstacles to building nuclear reactors.
China and the United States reached a nuclear cooperation pact in 1985, before China agreed to safeguards with the International Atomic Energy Agency. IAEA safeguards went into force in 1989, but Congress imposed new restrictions after the Chinese government’s June 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. The 123 agreement finally went into effect in March 1998; President Bill Clinton waived the 1989 sanctions after China pledged to end assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and nuclear cooperation with Iran.
In December 2006, Westinghouse Electric — majority-owned by Toshiba — signed an agreement to sell its AP1000 reactors to China. Four are under construction, six more are planned, and the company hopes to sell 30 others, according to an April report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
China has a pilot plant engaged in reprocessing in Jiu Quan, a remote desert town in Gansu province. Satellite photos show that it is next to a former military reprocessing plant. There is not even any fencing between the sites. (Wash Post, 5/10/2015)