Stick to 'gold standard' on nuclear energy
When US President Barack Obama promised in 2009 to work towards "a world without nuclear weapons", experts in non-proliferation cheered. More than two years later, they now have a reason to grumble.
The news that the Obama administration is considering deals with Jordan and Vietnam that would, in part, allow the right to enrich nuclear fuel, upends the accepted wisdom on developing new nuclear energy programmes. Worse, it gives Iran - where uranium enrichment is a source of international concern - a false justification to continue business as usual.
Countries that aspire to the peaceful production of nuclear energy ink deals with the US - known as 123 Agreements - for a number of reasons, from securing affordable fuel to gaining access to know-how. Enrichment, while a domestic right enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which Jordan, Vietnam and Iran, have ratified), is costly, cumbersome and makes little economic sense for countries operating fewer than a dozen reactors.
But because enrichment is also one way to a weapon, discouraging it was seen as a key piece of the Obama administration's non-proliferation playbook. Now, that tool looks like it's been weakened.
These are very early days for any shift in US nuclear policy. Any new deal between Washington and aspiring states that allows for enrichment would raise hackles in Congress. But nonetheless, Washington should not alienate its existing partners in non-proliferation.
When the United Arab Emirates and the United States entered a nuclear cooperation deal in December 2009, they did so out of mutual interest. That deal has been called the "gold standard" in the industry. The plan, which remains in force, provides the UAE with fuel guarantees and licensing help for its programme. The US, in turn, becomes a vendor in a safe, well-regulated civilian nuclear programme.
Washington can and should build on this approach. More importantly, it should renew calls for a nuclear fuel bank in which supplier states would produce fuel for aspiring nuclear powers. The UAE supports such a bank, and Mr Obama mentioned it in his Prague address two years ago. That is clearly the best path for all involved.
When countries such as the UAE voluntarily forego enrichment, we tell the world that energy is the only aspiration. That benefits the country, the region and the world.
Editor's note: The original version of this editorial incorrectly stated enrichment is the fastest way to a nuclear weapon. Rather, reprocessing of spent fuel is the fastest route.
Updated: February 1, 2012 04:00 AM