Short-sighted US Nuclear Policy

The nuclear deals being negotiated with Jordan and Saudi Arabia underscore US inconsistency on non-proliferation policy.

With so much international media attention focused on the historic developments in Egypt the past few weeks, it’s not surprising that the ongoing negotiations between the United States and Saudi Arabia and Jordan on concluding nuclear cooperation agreements have generally been overlooked.

These countries have long expressed a desire to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and are among a number of nations that hope to become part of the contemporary nuclear renaissance.  Yet while in principle this could be a good thing given growing international concern over greenhouse gas emissions from thermal power plants (nuclear energy is considered a zero carbon energy source), the problem is the inherent dual use nature of nuclear technology. It’s this possibility of the same nuclear technology being used, with some modifications, to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons that’s behind the concerns over the spread of nuclear power programmes.

As one way of minimizing such risks, the United States has proposed proscribing the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to countries that don’t already possess them, as well as making mandatory the acceptance of the Additional Protocol, which allows for more stringent safeguards on future cooperation agreements.  These issues came up for discussion at the NPT Review Conference in May 2010, but no decision was taken due to the dissent of several non-nuclear weapon states, including Brazil, South Korea, Egypt and Indonesia. The Nuclear Suppliers Group is also yet to take a stand on the issue.

Despite this, the United States insisted on including these more stringent measures in the nuclear cooperation agreement that was concluded with the United Arab Emirates in 2010; the UAE accepted these terms. But according to recent reports, the same standard isn’t being insisted upon for the nuclear cooperation agreements being negotiated by the United States with Saudi Arabia and Jordan.  This could either be because of strong pressure from the nuclear industry lobby, which fears being left out if other countries offer less restrictive terms, or it could be because the United States considers Saudi Arabia and Jordan allies, and is therefore less concerned about potential proliferation.

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Whatever the reason, the United States is again being short-sighted. A policy of selective proliferation, such as the blind eye that the United States turned to Pakistan’s obvious attempts at acquiring nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s—as well as the Sino-Pak nuclear nexus—has landed the United States with some of the threats it now faces.

The US Nuclear Posture Review 2010 stated nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism are the biggest dangers facing the country today, begging the question of whether the country has learned any lessons at all from past experience. Does the United States still not realize that nuclear proliferation can’t be checked unless a principled position is taken and the same standards applied uniformly and sincerely to all? Only then can it persuade other nations to follow the same standards and develop a wider net to help stop proliferation. There can be no half measures in this business.