Secrecy News

Nuclear Cooperation Agreements and Nonproliferation

President Obama this week transmitted to Congress the text of a proposed agreement with the People’s Republic of China concerning cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Known as “123 agreements” based on section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act, such accords are intended to regulate international traffic in nuclear materials and technology. The agreements generally provide for physical safeguards on subject materials, require consent for transfers of materials or technology to third countries, and impose restrictions on enrichment and reprocessing.

As of early last year, there were 23 agreements under Section 123 in effect.

“We want other nations to enter into 123 agreements with the United States because our [nuclear safeguards] standards are the highest in the world,” said Daniel B. Poneman, Deputy Secretary of Energy, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last year. “In our view, the more 123 agreements that exist in the world, the stronger the nonproliferation controls that will apply to all nuclear commerce.” (The record of that January 2014 hearing entitled “Section 123: Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreements” was published last month.)

In practice, the picture is a bit murkier, as such agreements by definition facilitate international transfers of nuclear materials and technology with long-term consequences that cannot always be foreseen. Beneficiaries of prior 123 agreements that subsequently lapsed include pre-revolutionary Iran, Israel, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

The U.S. and China previously reached an agreement on nuclear cooperation in 1985, though its implementation was blocked until 1998. For detailed background, see U.S.-China Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, Congressional Research Service, updated April 20, 2015.

That existing agreement with China expires this year, hence the President’s submission this week of a new proposed text. Among several proliferation-related issues likely to be considered in finalizing the pending agreement are Chinese missile technology exports and its nuclear support to Pakistan.

“China’s expanding civil nuclear cooperation with Pakistan raises serious concerns and we urge China to be more transparent regarding this cooperation,” the State Department’s Thomas Countryman told the Foreign Relations Committee last year.

Meanwhile, Iran is reportedly discussing its research on neutron transport and nuclear modeling with officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency. An extensive bibliography of nuclear research published by Iranian scientists including neutron transport problems and many other topics was prepared by researcher Mark Gorwitz in 2010.