US Senate panel approves Vietnam nuke agreement

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and Vietnam, as Washington looks to expand its relationship with its former Southeast Asian foe.

The agreement approved Tuesday by the committee would allow U.S. firms into Vietnam's expanding market for nuclear power. The U.S. and Vietnamese governments reached the agreement last October, and it was approved by President Barack Obama in February of this year. It now has to be endorsed by the full Senate. The prospects for passage remain uncertain.

The Democratic-led committee, which oversees American foreign policy, passed the agreement by a voice vote despite concerns from nonproliferation activists and some lawmakers that it lacks a blanket restriction on Vietnam enriching uranium itself or reprocessing plutonium. Those capabilities can be used for development of nuclear weapons.

Instead, Vietnam, signed a non-binding memorandum with the U.S. saying it does not intend to seek those capabilities and will obtain the nuclear fuel it needs from the international market. Vietnam is also party to various international nuclear security and nonproliferation treaties.

The U.S. nuclear industry, which faces growing international competition, is eager for passage of the agreement. Vietnam plans to develop up to 10,000 megawatts of nuclear generating capacity by 2030 to meet its growing demand for electricity. It has already signed contracts with Russia to build two reactors by 2020 and with Japan to build another two.

The Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute, which promotes nuclear technology, estimates that the agreement could generate $10 billion to $20 billion dollars in business for U.S. firms, although critics say it remains uncertain if such economic gains will materialize for American business. Vietnam also has nuclear agreements with Canada, China, France, and South Korea.

The proposed U.S. agreement is a sign of deepening ties between Washington and Hanoi, two decades since the normalization of diplomatic relations, although the U.S. government continues to criticize Vietnam's human rights record. It also reflects the Obama administration's effort to step up its engagement in Southeast Asia.

The U.S. and Vietnam launched a comprehensive partnership when Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang visited the White House last July. They share concerns over the increasingly assertive actions of rising power China, with which Vietnam has a tense territorial dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea.

Vietnam is also among 12 nations negotiating a U.S.-backed trans-Pacific free trade pact.