Washington — The American nuclear industry is in a slump. But now that the United States and China have signed the long-stalled nuclear-cooperation agreement, the industry is champing at the bit to start bidding for what could be $6 billion in contracts. ``The Chinese want the US bidding because of the competition,'' says Christopher Phillips, head of the National Council for US-China Trade. ``The French subsidiary of Westinghouse has a big lead, but the Chinese would like the technology directly from Westinghouse.''
Industry officials in the US are ecstatic. ``We're very pleased and hope this will open the door,'' says an executive at Westinghouse Electric Corporation. ``We're behind the Germans and the French, so we have a lot of catching up to do. We hope the agreement means the Chinese want to talk to us.''
Mr. Phillips estimates that orders for technology and equipment could go even higher -- possibly reaching $8 billion over the next 15 years. China is embarked on a long-range program of nuclear power development.
The US-China agreement was initialed when President Reagan visited Peking last year. But it ran into roadblocks in the administration over the issue of nuclear nonproliferation. With the sticking points worked out, the pact was signed Tuesday during Chinese President Li Xiannian's visit to the US.
Congress, however, must also review the agreement to see if it meets the requirements of the US Nuclear Nonproliferation Act. Hearings in the House are scheduled to begin early next week. The pact will go into effect after 90 legislative days, unless both houses disapprove it.
Congressional opponents of the agreement include lawmakers concerned about nuclear nonproliferation and ultraconservatives who do not want to expand commerce with a communist country. But it is unlikely that the opposition coalition is strong enough to overwhelm the agreement, congressional sources say.
At this writing, the text has not been received by Congress or made public. One aspect of the accord that will be scrutinized is the provisions concerning US controls over the reprocessing of fuel from any American-built nuclear reactors. Another concerns understandings reached about China's intentions not to help other countries -- such as Pakistan -- develop nuclear weapons.
China is not a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but it has made public and private statements committing itself to a policy against the spread of nuclear weapons. Many experts feel Peking has come a long way toward subscribing toward a nonproliferation regime, including joining the International Atomic Energy Agency. Even if the US-China agreement is not as good as some would like, they say, a nuclear trade relationship will encourage the Chinese to live up to their public commitments.
``Their record [in keeping agreements] is not unblemished, but in the real world we've brought them about as far along as we can,'' says Harry Harding, a China specialist at the Brookings Institution.
``We have to see the details of the agreement,'' says Leonard S. Spector, expert on nuclear issues at the Carnegie Endownment for International Peace. ``But the fact that [the administration] no longer seems to be concerned about the nonproliferation problem is significant.'' The US can always withhold individual export licenses if China violates its nonproliferation assurances, he adds.
President Li's visit is viewed more as a routine event than as a turning point in Sino-American relations. Ties continue to improve as the Chinese look to the West for help in carrying out their ambitious modernization plans.
Lingering problems between the two countries -- Taiwan, trade protectionism, and family-planning policies -- have been treated in low-key fashion. In his meeting Tuesday with President Reagan, the Chinese leader did not raise the sensitive issue of cuts in US funding for population-control groups operating in China.
Mr. Reagan, for his part, reaffirmed US policy on Taiwan, saying it was for the Chinese on the mainland and on the island to find new ideas for peaceful reunification. He also assured Li of the administration's opposition to pending legislation that would cut textile imports. Textiles are a major Chinese export to the US.