Tuesday, August 10, 2010

U.S. Vietnam nuclear talks focus on enrichment

Nonproliferation objectives get attention from Congress and China

vietnam-mapThe Wall Street Journal reports Aug 3 that US talks with Vietnam about its plans to build nuclear reactors has “unsettled“ key members of Congress. The Hindu, one of India’s largest newspapers, reports Aug 9 that China is annoyed by reports Vietnam might develop uranium enrichment capabilities with U.S. technology.

The WSJ report leads with news that the Obama administration is “in advanced negotiations to share nuclear fuel and technology . . . that would allow Hanoi to enrich its own uranium.”

It didn’t take long for a reaction in Congress. On Aug 6 the WSJ reports that Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the negotiations are an example of a double standard when compared to the “hard line position” the US took in its 1-2-3 agreement with the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE promised not to develop its own uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing capabilities in return for the right to import U.S. commercial nuclear energy technologies and components. So far the arrangement hasn’t done much for U.S. nuclear firms as last December the UAE awarded a $20 billion contract to South Korea to build four 1,400 MW reactors.

China reacts to US initiative

China, which considers Vietnam to be within its sphere of political influence due to their long common border, is not happy about the potential for US uranium enrichment technology being sold to its neighbor to the south.

zhai dequanIn an interview with the Hindu newspaper, Zhai Dequan, (right) deputy secretary of the China Arms Control & Disarmament Association, criticized the US negotiations.

He called the negotiations with Vietnam a “double standard” in comparison to the UAE 1-2-3 agreement. He said China is “worried” about the potential for Vietnam having enrichment capabilities.

The Chinese state-controlled news media frequently rolls out statements by Dequan when it has something to say about nonproliferation issues. Also, the Times of India reports Aug 6 that China was “surprised” by reports the US plans to introduce enrichment technology in Southeast Asia. India is worried about China’s plans to sell nuclear reactors to Pakistan.

US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley was widely quoted by wire services as dismissing these concerns saying the decision to involve the US in Vietnam’s nuclear energy plans “don’t involve China.”

The WSJ reported that Vietnam denied it had any interest in plans to enrich uranium. Vuong Huu Tam, Director of the Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute, told the newspaper the county feels the issue is “too sensitive” to pursue.

All nonproliferation agreements are not the same

The WSJ reported that the State Department highlighted differences in its approach to nonproliferation issues in the Middle East and in Asia. The newspaper cited a senior government official who said the US is “setting a different standard for Hanoi” because it consider the proliferation risks in the Middle East to be much more serious.

“We believe the UAE agreement is a model for the region. These concerns do not specifically apply to Asia. We will take a different approach region by region and country by country.”

Henry SokolskiA leading nonproliferation expert questioned the wisdom of the US stirring up China on this issue. Henry Sokolski, (right) director of a Washington,DC, arms control think tank, told wire services, “Does it make sense to be peddling nuclear cooperation in a way to make and influence friends there?”

He said the US would be “buying trouble” by selling enrichment technology to Vietnam.

What does seem clear is that the U.S. civilian nuclear renaissance is involved in a head-on collision with foggy bottom's foreign policy objectives. It ain't pretty.

Where would the US get enrichment technology to sell?

There are two possible sources of uranium enrichment technology from US firms. The first is USEC’s American Centrifuge Facility being built in Piketon, OH. The facility is behind schedule with a revised application for a loan guarantee pending with the Department of Energy for the $2.8 billion plant.

GE-Hitachi is developing a laser enrichment plant in Wilmington, NC. However, the answer to the question of whether the technology will scale to a production facility from the test loop is still under wraps. The firm has said publically it will complete the NRC licensing process and have the plant under construction by 2012.

Nonproliferation experts have seized on the laser enrichment technology as a proliferation threat. In response, Tammy Orr, the CEO of the GE business unit, told the Global Security Newswire for Aug 2 the technology would have "detectable signatures" to prevent illegal use of the laser enrichment process. Neither GE nor USEC firm have said anything in their public marketing programs about exports or licensing of their respective technologies to other countries.

Areva’s planned Idaho Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility and Louisiana Energy Services operating New Mexico enrichment plant do not have the ability to export the enrichment technology they use in their facilities. The European supplier puts strict controls on the use of the centrifuges in these plants.

Does Vietnam need enrichment?

fuel-pellet-assemblyIn fact, for its first deal for new reactors, Vietnam doesn’t need uranium enrichment technology. The country earlier this year signed an agreement with Russia to buy several nuclear reactors. The Russians typically supply the finished fuel rods for their export reactors and also retrograde the spent fuel from customers.

Japan is planning a major push to export its nuclear reactor technology to Vietnam. The country has been training Vietnam’s nuclear engineers for years. The Financial Times reports Aug 10 that while Japan has tremendous capabilities in the nuclear energy field, getting organized to export its reactors to other countries will be a challenge for the “fragmented” industry. Still, Vietnam is close at hand for Japan which makes it an easy sales call.

Prior coverage on this blog

  • 09/27/09 – A small country wants to built big reactors
  • 07/02/10 – Vietnam plans to build 13 reactors

# # #

No comments: