US Senate adopts Vietnam agreement

28 July 2014

The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has passed legislation approving a 123 agreement on nuclear cooperation with Vietnam. The legislation passed at a business meeting of the committee last week.

A 123 agreement gets its name from a section of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which establishes an agreement for cooperation as a prerequisite for nuclear deals between the USA and any other nation. Under the latest such agreement, the USA could license the export of nuclear reactor and research information, material, and equipment to Vietnam.

This southeast Asian country already has plans to have two Russian reactors totalling 2000 MWe at Phuoc Dinh in the southern Ninh Thuan province by 2020, followed by another 2000 MWe using Japanese technology at Vinh Hai in the same province. These plants would be followed by a further 6000 MWe by 2030, subsequently increased to having a total of 15,000 MWe by 2030.

Duration limited to 30 years

The joint resolution – introduced in May by committee chairman Robert Menendez - would limit the duration of future 123 agreements to 30 years, unless the agreement is renewed or Congress agrees to an extension. Although the committee approved that change, it voted against two other proposed amendments.

Republican senator Bob Corker wanted this and all future 123 agreements to require foreign countries to give up any plans to enrich and reprocess nuclear fuel, while Democrat senator Edward Markey suggested that such agreements ought to be terminated if a nation later acquired or developed such technology.

Corker pointed out that the United Arab Emirates had renounced plans to enrich and reprocess uranium or other fuel in the 123 agreement it signed in 2009, agreeing that it would instead obtain nuclear fuel from reliable international suppliers. Vietnam instead signed a nonbinding memorandum with the US saying it does not intend to seek that capability.

This absence of a consistent policy weakens the USA's nuclear non-proliferation efforts and sends "a mixed message to those nations we seek to prevent from gaining or enhancing such capability," Corker said in his letter to the committee.

Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Centre, told Global Security Newswire on 23 July the Vietnam deal might set a bad precedent. It will "greatly complicate" the USA's efforts to get South Korea to drop its demands to recycle plutonium and to enrich uranium, Sokolski said.

But Carol Berrigan, senior director of supplier policy and programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said a requirement to forswear enrichment and reprocessing would risk significantly reducing the number of countries willing to engage with the USA in civil nuclear commerce.

Issues for Congress

The USA and Vietnam signed the agreement on 6 May and it was transmitted to Congress for review, which may take up to 90 days of continuous session. If Congress breaks for recess in August, then this period would end on August 6. If it does not, US lawmakers would have additional time before sending the legislation to the White House.
The Congressional Research Service said last month that at least four issues are expected to be prominent when Congress takes up the agreement with Vietnam.

First, whether the agreement should have included stronger non-proliferation commitments such as a legally-binding commitment by Vietnam not to build uranium enrichment and reprocessing facilities. Second, the extent to which Vietnam's human rights record should affect the decision to enter into a nuclear energy agreement. Third, the weight that should be given to the growing strategic relationship between the USA and Vietnam. Finally, the extent to which US companies would benefit from an agreement.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News