While U.S. government officials and industry advocates have told lawmakers that renewing a nuclear cooperation deal with China would be beneficial to the U.S., some lawmakers and experts said they are concerned about issues such as proliferation, diversion of civilian nuclear technology and export control.
At a hearing Thursday by two U.S. House subcommittees, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman said bringing the new agreement with China into force will improve not only cooperation on nonproliferation between the two countries, but also the overall bilateral relationship with China.
“The agreement has important benefits as noted already in the field of economic interest in the U.S. including jobs, it also is an essential element in helping to manage the complex bilateral relationship we have with the PRC (People’s Republic of China),” said Countryman.
A new agreement would permit China, the biggest nuclear power market in the world, to buy more U.S.-designed reactors and nuclear technology to reprocess plutonium from spent fuel.
The Obama administration submitted the agreement for congressional review three months ago.
The agreement will replace a 1985 deal that will expire at the end of the year, and extend U.S.-China civilian nuclear cooperation for another 30 years.
A bipartisan resolution in the House of Representatives has been introduced to approve the agreement.
Democratic Congressman Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania said he supports the agreement because it has worked since 1985.
“Certainly updates need to happen; changes need to be made, but I’m a supporter and proud to be a co-sponsor of it," he said.
Republican Congressman Ted Poe of Texas thinks it is “a good agreement.”
“It’s an agreement that we will do business with China, that’s what the agreement stands for,” Poe said. “We should make sure the agreement is fair to the U.S. and to the Chinese.”
Daniel Lipman, vice president of Suppliers and International Programs of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the deal will bring great economic benefits to the U.S.
Lipman noted that U.S. exports of nuclear plant construction to China are expected to be in the range of $3 billion to $7 billion per year through 2040.
The Chinese nuclear energy program is the most rapidly expanding in the world. Beijing announced last December that it will spend $11.2 billion annually on reactor construction in the next 10 years.
However, Congressman Matt Salmon (R-AZ), who chaired the hearing, said potential economic benefits aside, the agreement raised security questions about China's nonproliferation commitment.
“The Defense Intelligence Agency warned in February 2015 that China will continue to be a source of duel use WMD (weapon of mass destruction) applicable goods, equipment and materials to countries of concern, like Iran, North Korea and Syria,“ Salmon said.
Checks on China
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told VOA there is a lot of concern on Capitol Hill that China probably has diverted U.S. civilian technology to improve its submarine reactors.
Sokolski warned that the U.S. should not be loosening but “tightening export control.”
Yet, he said, instead of tightening the control of the transfer of nuclear technology and goods, the new deal would expedite or pre-approve such a transfer, reducing the review process.
Sokolski said a key concern to him is the provision in the new agreement that would give China advanced consent to reprocess spent fuel from U.S. designed reactors.
He said this is the kind of permission the U.S. has previously only given to its close European allies and Japan.
This could allow the Chinese to stockpile plutonium for weapons purposes, Sokolski added.
Sharon Squassoni, director and senior fellow of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed.
“One, there is no strict separation between military and civilian activities; two, even China has not separated plutonium for weapons purposes for many years, and reprocessing is not necessary to have a vibrant nuclear power program,” Squassoni said.
“So by our granting advanced consent to China in this area, we are also legitimizing that, and that carries the risk of plutonium buildup in Asia," she added.
Countryman defended the administration’s decision to give advanced consent to China.
He told VOA China long knew how to reprocess nuclear waste into plutonium and did not need the U.S. technology to do that.
“What the agreement says is that they have advanced permission to extract from U.S. provided reactors plutonium, subject to administrative arrangement to be negotiated later,” Countryman said.
“It’s not a blank check; it’s an agreement in principle that they can continue to do what they already know how to do.”
Congress has 90 days to review the U.S.-China nuclear cooperation deal. If it does not act before the review period expires, the deal will go into effect.
The Senate held a similar hearing on the deal last May.
Although concerns have been raised about the nuclear deal with China, there has not been an overwhelming congressional objection.
The strongest objection came from two Republican senators, Marco Rubio of Florida and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who introduced a joint resolution seeking to disapprove the U.S.-China Nuclear Cooperation Agreement.
“During congressional review of this agreement, serious questions have been raised about China’s compliance with the existing nuclear cooperation agreement and Beijing’s intentions to violate the agreement now before Congress,” Rubio said in the statement.
He said the stakes are too high for the U.S. to continue a business-as-usual approach to China by letting this agreement enter into force.
“Given China’s belligerence in the South China Sea, relentless cyber-attacks against the U.S. and U.S. companies, and unwillingness to stop known proliferators, it is unconscionable that they’re rewarded with a new Nuclear Cooperation Agreement,” Senator Cotton said.