A few people in Washington are pumping up the forthcoming renewal of the U.S. bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement with Taiwan as an impending shot in the arm for the no-enrichment/no-reprocessing “gold standard” they want to see implemented by the U.S. in all future 123 agreements following the conclusion of the U.S.-UAE agreement in 2009.

Nowhere in the world does the U.S. government have as much leverage over a foreign country’s  nuclear activities as it does in Taiwan. Taiwan therefore does not serve as a model for global application of the “gold standard,” regardless of what some pundits had to say in this piece that Elaine Grossman published a couple of days ago. I saw the article just after returning to Europe from Chicago yesterday. (By coincidence, it would appear that Elaine reported it out while I was grocery-shopping and dining here in Elaine’s hometown of Cleveland last week.)

If the U.S.-Taiwan agreement isn’t renewed, it will expire in 2014. I’m highly confident, however, that it will be renewed, and that Taiwan will continue to embrace a policy of using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without enriching uranium or reprocessing its not-insignificant inventory of spent power-reactor fuel.

But Taiwan’s resolve not to enrich or reprocess has nothing to do with the “gold standard” and nearly everything to do with U.S. leverage over Taiwan’s security arrangements (a somewhat watered-down argument might also be made for the UAE).

The bottom line is that any forthcoming decision by Taiwan and the U.S. to adopt the language of the UAE 123 agreement on reprocessing or enrichment in a new 123 agreement will more or less reiterate a very firm bilateral understanding reached long ago by Taiwan and the U.S. that Taiwan will not enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel. For over 40 years, the U.S. has been rigorously enforcing that understanding.

Taiwan’s current 123 agreement–as the U.S. government e-mail traffic referred to in Elaine’s article correctly suggests–does not categorically exclude reprocessing and enrichment by Taiwan. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has been party to a bilateral 123 agreement with Taiwan (which says the U.S. has prior consent rights over the “alteration” of nuclear material by Taiwan), to a trilateral safeguards agreement with Taiwan and the IAEA (Infcirc/158), and to a bilateral safeguards agreement. This 1980 U.S. government non-paper spells out that U.S. rights over Taiwan’s nuclear activities are indeed so extensive that the U.S. could instruct the German government that any nuclear items supplied to Taiwan by a German exporter would be subject to U.S. “control rights,” which included U.S. “fallback safeguards rights” if deemed necessary.  Beyond this, I’m told that there is a bilateral understanding–which may not be public–that enrichment and reprocessing by Taiwan are categorically off the table.

During the 1970s, the U.S. confirmed that Taiwan had been involved on several occasions in undeclared and unreported nuclear R&D activities. Whenever that happened–the last case I know about was in the mid-1990s, when Taiwan processed some uranium- and thorium-bearing sands–officials from U.S. DOE and State arrived quickly on the scene and were rubbernecking around installations on Taiwan, including locations which Taiwan never declared to the IAEA under Taiwan’s IAEA safeguards agreements. The impression I have from people who have been close to U.S. “safeguards visits” in Taiwan on such occasions is that the U.S. has access to Taiwan’s nuclear program close to what UNSCOM and IAEA inspectors had in Iraq beginning in 1991. From the perspective of routine international nuclear diplomacy, U.S.-Taiwan relations in this area are clearly not routine.

Taiwan’s civilian nuclear program was launched decades ago by the KMT leadership under circumstances which, to put it mildly, didn’t exactly encourage political participation by Taiwan’s indigenous population. Since 2000, when the DPP won a national election and took power for the first time, the KMT’s legacy has threatened Taiwan’s nuclear power program and, in the wake of Fukushima, might ultimately prove fatal to it. The DPP has adopted an antinuclear plank in its platform, and since the accident in Japan, DPP politicians have been fanning the flames. So it isn’t a surprise that right now, Taiwan government officials want to quickly and without fanfare close on the terms of a new 123 agreement with the U.S. Given Taiwan’s historical dependence upon technology, equipment, and nuclear fuel from the U.S., the absence of a new bilateral agreement in 2014 w0uld halt Taiwan’s nuclear program in its tracks.

Unlike in some other countries that are expanding their peaceful nuclear programs to include nuclear fuel processing (just think about Brazil, for example), in Taiwan the U.S. has lots of leverage over its nuclear program. All the power reactors on Taiwan are based on U.S. intellectual property. Taiwan’s nuclear regulatory agency is a virtual clone of the U.S. NRC. And Taiwan Power Co., which owns and operates all the power reactors on Taiwan, processes uranium fuel using U.S. vendors.

Above and beyond this looms the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which is the bible for U.S. bilateral affairs with Taiwan. It says that the U.S. “will consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means… a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” The TRA puts the U.S. military juggernaut front-and-center in defense of Taiwan, but it doesn’t reflexively imply that any specific threat to Taiwan would be interpreted by Washington as a casus belli. That important distinction increases still further Washington’s political leverage over Taiwan’s nuclear program. Would Taiwan put its security relationship with the U.S. at risk to enrich uranium, especially given that the Taiwan government proclaimed after Fukushima that nuclear power’s days on the island may be numbered? Don’t bet on it.