Last week, President Obama submitted for Congressional review a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam. The so-called Section 123 agreement, named after the provision in the Atomic Energy Act that permits such agreements, establishes a legal framework for Vietnam and the United States to engage in civil nuclear cooperation. Congress has 90 days to take action to disapprove the agreement. 

As we noted back in November, the agreement with Vietnam does not impose restrictions on enrichment and reprocessing that have been included in other recent agreements (e.g., with the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan). Instead, the U.S. is accepting Vietnam’s political commitment to not engage in enrichment and reprocessing activities, apparently embodied in a side note to the agreement. While many in Congress would like to see enrichment and reprocessing restrictions become a mandatory feature of future 123 agreements, the reality is that there is little benefit to such a hardline position so long as other nuclear powers do not insist on such conditions. Without any agreement, the U.S. would remain on the sidelines indefinitely — with no opportunity to exercise influence over either safety or international trade in nuclear materials and technology involving a particular country. Worse, the U.S. would severely limit its ability to monetize the decades of nuclear technology and know-how developed here in the U.S. And, it would hurt our ability to quickly re-invigorate a domestic nuclear industry should we ever get serious about tackling climate change.

This leads to a final observation. To what extent is the U.S.-Vietnam agreement a “trial balloon” to assess Congressional appetite for a fight on the need for enrichment and reprocessing restrictions in future agreement? The U.S.-Vietnam agreement makes clear that the U.S. policy is not to reflexively require the “gold standard,” but rather to engage in a case-by-case assessment. It becomes difficult to see how the administration or Congress could acquiesce to the U.S.-Vietnam approach, but still insist on such a provision in an agreement with, say, Saudi Arabia or Jordan. By taking the gold standard off the table, the U.S. also has improved its flexibility to placate long-time allies, such as Saudi Arabia, and facilitate an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. So, in addition to opening an avenue for nuclear trade with Vietnam, the agreement may give the administration some room to maneuver in ongoing negotiations on other nuclear matters