Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh signed an agreement to enable future civil nuclear cooperation between the two countries. While the text has not been made public, it appears that the agreement will not include a so-called Gold Standard provision proscribing Vietnam from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium.
The agreement marks the latest installment in a decade-long effort by the United States and other major nuclear powers to limit the further spread of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies (ENR), which can provide both fuel for nuclear power and fissile material for nuclear weapons. Controversies over the terms of this and potential future U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements illustrate that such efforts are likely to be contentious and partially successful at best.
How did we reach this impasse? In 2002-2003 it was revealed that Iran had been clandestinely enriching uranium at undeclared facilities. Soon after, Pakistani nuclear weapons scientist A.Q. Khan was exposed as the leader of an illicit nuclear trafficking network, which had sold enrichment technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea. These developments sparked concerns that a new wave of countries would acquire enrichment technology, claiming like Iran that that they were doing so for peaceful purposes within the bounds of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).