THE STATE DEPARMENT is engaged in an all-out lobbying effort to strip the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its authotity to license nuclear exports. State's idea has met with virtually unanimous opposition on Capitol Hill -- and for very good reasons.
The NRC's licensing authority was granted by Congress because it believed that an independent check was needed on State Department management of nuclear exports. This was no theoretical judgment: it came directly from this country's bitter experience with India, which had used U.S.-supplied material known as heavy water to make its nuclear bomb.
In the nuclear cooperation agreement under which the heavy water was supplied, the State Department had tried but failed to secure Indian agreement to international safeguards on its nuclear facilities. Safeguards are essentially a system of inspection and measurement to ensure that no material is lost or diverted to weapons use. After India's 1974 explosion, the Atomic Energy Commission tried to avert further problems by securing Indian agreement to what is now known as a "no explosives pledge." Under such a pledge, India would have agreed not to use for weapons purposes materials or facilities supplied by the United States for India's energy program. India replied that it "regrets that it is unable to share the understanding of the U.S. government." Nevertheless, nuclear cooperation with India continued, and the State Department never did vigorously protest the flagrant misuse of U.S. heavy water. In fact, some members of the department argued that because the original agreement was so vague, India had never actually violated the agreement at all.
To avoid comparable situations, Congress directed the NRC to review nuclear exports negotiated and proposed by the State Department. Before approving an export, the NRC must find that five specific conditions have been met. Two of them -- that adequate international safeguards will be in effect in the recipient country and that the export will be covered by adequate physical security -- are quite technical and require the NRC's technical expertise. The other three amount to an independent check that certain required assurances -- including a "no explosives plege" -- have been clearly agreed to.
The NRC's licensing authority is not, as one State Department official put it, "second-guessing the president on foreign-policy issues." It is, instead a second-guess of the State Department on non-proliferation issues, which are partly -- but only partly -- a matter of foreign policy. It has been, in fact, when nuclear exports were made solely for foreign policy reasons that the country has run into trouble.
The White House is now considering whether to support State's effort to regain total control over nuclear exports. It is a bad idea that would have unfortunate consequences at home and send undesirable signals abroad. It deserves to die an unlamented death.