A NEW agreement between the United States and the European Union on nuclear trade indicates a quiet but substantial shift toward Europe in the transatlantic balance of power.
The deal, which went into effect last night at midnight, allows Euratom (the EU's atomic energy agency) the right to trade US-originated nuclear fuel within EU borders without specific American approval.
It is a sign of a "growing assertiveness on the part of Europeans," says David Kyd, spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
The deal came about after a long and contentious period of negotiations between the US and the EU. A 90-day period during which Congress could have disapproved or called for modifications of the accord ended yesterday. "The sand has run out of the hourglass," says a Capitol Hill aide in Washington.
A broad American coalition of nonproliferation advocates - ranging from Greenpeace International to the conservative Center for Security Policy in Washington - opposed the agreement. These critics note that the deal violates the US Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 by giving the US no right of review over transfers of nuclear materials from one EU member to another.
"A big problem is transfers within Euratom.... Some countries are stricter than others" in handling nuclear materials, says Daniel Horner, deputy director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington.
Critics add that the US right to control the transfer of nuclear material is especially important with the possible entry of less-stable Eastern European nations into the EU.
More trade, less clout?
Yet this new agreement is only the latest in a subtle trend in US-European relations, with America slowly giving up some of its clout on the continent.
The new accord "was negotiated between equal transatlantic partners," a senior official of the European Commission in Brussels says.
"Since the 1950s, there has been a steadily declining leverage of the United States over other nations.... By the time of the 1970s, the United States dominance had pretty much dwindled to a rough parity with Europe," said former Energy Secretary James Schlesinger in a Senate committee hearing Feb. 28. Nonetheless, he concluded that "the proposed agreement fully meets the requirements of the US."
Although the Clinton administration wants to make nuclear nonproliferation a priority, it also hopes to preserve the American share of the multibillion-dollar nuclear materials trade.
Two key questions still surround the issue of European nuclear trade:
*Is the EU a single integrated entity, where all states are equally reliable, or a collection of independent states, some of whom might be more reliable with nuclear material than others?
*Can Europeans be relied upon not to sell sensitive technologies to international troublemakers? Recent history notwithstanding, the senior European Commission official dismissed as "not a credible scenario" the possibility that the new agreement could allow sensitive technology to be sold to a rogue state.
A particular hot-button case, which illustrates Europe's growing independence in nuclear trade issues, is a research reactor to be built at Garching, near Munich, Germany.
Over strong US protests, the Technical University of Munich is proceeding with plans to build this reactor to run on highly enriched uranium (HEU). HEU can be used to make nuclear bombs, and critics of the Garching project are concerned that the HEU could come - indirectly - from Russia.
The US is trying to keep Russia from selling HEU on the open market. Washington fears that a deal with Euratom to supply Garching would set a troubling precedent. Euratom is widely reported to be negotiating with Minatom, the Russian government nuclear agency, to buy HEU. The senior European Commission official denied that such negotiations were under way but said "contacts" had been made.
Meanwhile, even Europeans who share the US concern about Garching criticize the coalition of Americans who demand to review transfers of plutonium among EU nations. In particular, many object to the idea that the US is the "world policeman" on nuclear issues, says Annette Schaper, senior research associate at the Hessian Foundation for Peace and Conflict in Frankfurt. "The logic of European integration requires that Europe be treated as a whole."
Furthermore, US concern about the EU's eastward expansion reflects "prejudices against Slavs and eastern Europeans that I find a scandal," she added.