Monday, May 11, 2015

• Barack Obama's nuclear deal with China, quiet submarines and the South China Sea - Steven Mufson

Airstrip construction on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea is pictured in this April 2, 2015, satellite image. Photo: Reuters

Washington: It seemed like a typical day for US President Barack Obama. He taped a TV interview on trade, hosted the champion NASCAR team on the South Lawn and met the Defence Secretary in the Oval Office.

Not so typical was something that did not appear that day on the President's public schedule: notification to Congress that he intends to renew a nuclear co-operation agreement with China. The deal would allow Beijing to buy more US-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 more difficult to detect.

The formal notice initially did not draw any headlines. Its unheralded release on April 21 reflected the administration's anxiety that it might alarm members of Congress and non-proliferation experts who fear China's growing naval power - and the possibility of nuclear technology falling into the hands of third parties with nefarious intentions.

Now, however, Congress is turning its attention to the agreement. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to hear from five Obama officials in a closed-door meeting on Monday 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 analysing China's nuclear export control system and what Mr Obama's notification called its "interactions with other countries of proliferation concern".

The White House's willingness to push ahead with the nuclear accord with Beijing illustrates the evolving relationship between the world's two largest powers, which, while eyeing each other with mutual suspicion and competitiveness, also view each other as vital economic and strategic global partners. The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, argues that the new agreement will clear the way for US 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 US 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.

Administration officials are using arguments similar to those deployed in the debate over Iran. They say the negotiations over the 123 agreement persuaded China to go a "long way" and agree to controls on technology and materials that are tighter than those in the current accord.

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," said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could talk more freely. "We go into it with eyes wide open," he added. "Without it, we would be less able to press the Chinese to do better on this front."

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. Mr Obama also hopes to seal a global climate deal in December featuring China - less than three weeks before the current nuclear accord expires.

Congress is not convinced yet.
"We are just beginning what will be a robust review process," Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker said in an email. "These agreements can be valuable tools for furthering US interests, but they must support, not undermine, our nation's critical non-proliferation objectives."

A quieter submarine?
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Centre, has been urging lawmakers to insist on requiring advance consent for the acquisition by China of a plutonium-reprocessing plant capable of producing weapons-grade material. He also opposes the sale of nuclear energy technologies, especially coolant pumps and high-quality valves known as squib valves, with possible naval use.

Charlotte-based Curtiss-Wright developed advanced coolant pumps for the US Navy's submarines. The same plant produces a scaled-up version for the Westinghouse AP1000 series reactors, each of which uses four big pumps. These pumps reduce noises that would make a submarine easier to detect.

That has become a bigger concern since China occupied and started building what looks like a military base on strategic (and disputed) reefs in the South China Sea.

An Obama administration official said the reactor coolant pumps are much too big to fit into a submarine. However, a 2008 paper by two former nuclear submarine officers working on threat reduction said "the reverse engineering would likely be difficult", but it added "certainly, the Chinese have already reversed engineered very complex imported technology in the aerospace and nuclear fields".

Mr Sokolski thinks the choice between reactor sales and tighter controls is a clear one. "Since when does employment trump national security?" he asked rhetorically.

The US 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.

When it comes to nuclear weapons proliferation, China is in a different category from other 123 agreement nations. It first tested a nuclear weapon in 1964 and now has an arsenal of about 250 nuclear warheads. US concerns have focused more on whether China has transferred technology to other countries.

Reprocessing is another key issue.
China has a pilot plant engaged in reprocessing in Jiuquan, a remote desert town in Gansu province. Satellite photos show that it is next to a former military reprocessing plant, according to Frank von Hippel, a Princeton University physics professor who specialises in nuclear arms control. There was no fencing between the sites, he said.

"That's been one of the hang-ups of the [reprocessing] deal" that China has been trying to negotiate with France for several years, Professor von Hippel said.

But the most politically sensitive issue in Congress might turn out to be dual-use applications of nuclear reactor parts.

A Senate Armed Services Committee aide, who was not authorised to speak on behalf of the committee members and commented on the condition of anonymity, said the Senate would also focus on military applications of reactor technology for submarines, given rising concern about China's aggressive posture in the South China Sea.

Committee chairman John McCain would not comment for this article, but he has recently questioned continuing engagement with China while it maintains an aggressive approach to regional issues.

But the Armed Services Committee aide said: "This is not simply renewing a past agreement. The senators are going to address it in new strategic circumstances."

New York Times