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It’s Not as Easy as 1-2-3 via Foreign Policy

The Obama team fights over how to promote nuclear energy without promoting nuclear weapons.

You may not have noticed — hardly anyone has — but Barack Obama’s administration is rewriting the rules governing the global trade in civil nuclear technology. The revisions are the most significant in three decades, and the outcome will probably determine whether the anticipated expansion of nuclear power in the developing world — the so-called nuclear renaissance — happens without a corresponding spread of nuclear weapons programs.

In 2009, the United States seemed to signal a hard-line approach when it agreed to cooperate with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on civilian nuclear technology only on the condition that the country not pursue the ability to enrich uranium to make fresh nuclear fuel or to reprocess plutonium from spent nuclear fuel to recycle it in reactors. These technologies, as every casual Iran watcher now knows, are the same as those used to make fissile material for a nuclear bomb. Officials from George W. Bush’s administration subsequently described the UAE pledge as the “gold standard” for new nuclear cooperation accords — known as “123 agreements.”

The Obama administration has been more hesitant, saying instead that each new 123 agreement would be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. In other words, the administration would try to replicate the ban on enrichment and reprocessing when possible, while strongly suggesting that the UAE was a unique circumstance. That disappointed many nonproliferation experts — both within the administration and without — who believed that Washington was surrendering an opportunity to stem the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology, even as the president continued to warn of the danger from weapons-usable nuclear material falling into the wrong hands. The gold standard languished in another policy review while the administration continued to negotiate 123 agreements — until last week anyway, when, according to a report published in National Journal, the State Department made a play for a new 123 agreement with Taiwan.

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