TODAY THE SENATE is scheduled to vote on legislation aimed at controlling U.S. exports of nuclear materials to countries around the world. That in itself is something - the scheduling of the vote, we mean. For months opponents of the legislation, chiefly spokesmen for the nuclear industry that does the exporting, have put their best (and, up till now, successful) efforts into preventing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Act from coming to the Senate floor at all. If you want to know why they were not eager for an open test of strength on the merits of the issue, you need only consider that in the House the companion bill (which they also tried to defeat) was passed last year by a vote of 411 to 0.
The House was right. This is legislation that emphatically deserves to be enacted - and without the encumbrance of crippling and destructive amendments that Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho) and some others have been seeking to add. The purpose of the bill, whose principal Senate sponsors are Democrat John Glenn of Ohio and Republican Charles Percy of Illinois, is not to limit or terminate American exports of nuclear fuel and plant to countries seeking to get the good of the atom for energy generation and other peaceful purposes. On the contrary, the bill is designed merely to make sure, to the extent possible, that such peaceful-purposes exports do not find their way into the makings of nuclear bombs. Is that an unreasonable goal?
What the legislation would do is establish some clear and consistent rules governing the circumstances under which fuel and plant could be exported. There would have to be very strict safeguards on all of a country's nuclear installations; activities that could not be properly safeguarded would be out of bounds for material exported by the United States; and American permission would be required for the retransfer to third countries of material originally exported from this country or for the reprocessing of U.S.-exported fuel. In addition, the legislation reaffirms the essential role of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in overseeing U.S. exports, and it also provides a generous time span for renegotiating nuclear agreements we have with other countries in order to bring them into accord with the provisions of the new Act.
There has been a lot of sophistry and illogic thrown around by those opoosing this sensible legislation, and a certain amount of hysteria has been injected into the argument, too. It has been noisily worried, for instance, that the legislation would destroy the home-grown nuclear industry, whereas all it would really do is make impossible the genuinely reckless sale. And it has also been argued that the legislation would demonstrate the United States to be an unreliable exporter, whereas a reasonable and consistent set of standards such as those embodied in the bill would make transactions far less chancy. How odd it is, coming from legislators not known for their roll-over-and-play-dead propensities where U.S. foreign relations business about how if we make clear that our nuclear exports are not to be used for weapon-making . . . well, we will lose the market, or it just won't work or "they won't put with it" - or something.
"They" will put up with it. The U.S. nuclear industry has a good product to sell, one that will withstand the inconvenience to importers of having to demonstrate that they do not intend to misuse that product. And the U.S. government has a real obligation not to let our nuclear exports be the stuff of which new nuclear bombs are made. The Senate should reject the troublesome amendments and vote for the Glenn-Percy measure as is.