Nuclear security bill clears House but Senate prospects unclear

By

 Updated:

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House of Representatives on Monday overwhelmingly approved legislation to ensure the United States complies with two broadly supported international nuclear security accords, but a key Senate opponent on Tuesday affirmed his lingering opposition.

The 390-3 vote marked the chamber's second endorsement of measures needed to comply with the treaties and two separate maritime security agreements. The two nuclear pacts, which address nuclear terrorism law and domestic nuclear material security, are themselves relatively noncontroversial; the Senate issued resolutions of advice and consent for them in 2008. House lawmakers, though, took nearly four years to break a stalemate over measures included in the legislation that could extend wiretapping authorities and apply the death penalty in nuclear terrorism cases.

The House first passed the legislation last summer without those elements, but, Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said he wanted them included, and an anonymous hold prevented a Senate vote. Grassley would be willing to consider it on the Senate floor this year with a separate vote on the death penalty provision, Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine said. Senate Democrats last year prevented passage of a draft containing revisions sought by Grassley.

As with four prior drafts, the newest bill would complete U.S. ratification of the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. The pact, which entered into force in 2007 and now has 86 states parties, requires member nations to criminalize possession and use of nuclear and radiological weapons by individuals. It establishes guidelines for cooperating in the extradition and prosecution of individuals linked to a nuclear plot or threat.

The bill would also bring the United States into line with a 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. The amendment updates the 1980s-era pact, which governs international shipments of civilian nuclear material, by including standards for securing nonmilitary atomic substances held, used or transferred within a single nation’s borders.

Sixty-seven governments had fully adopted the amendment as of last month. To take effect, the measure must receive backing from two-thirds of the full treaty's signatories. The original convention now has 148 members, placing the amendment's implementation threshold at 99 states.

"Many other countries have indicated that they are waiting for the United States to complete ratification before moving ahead with their own ratification processes, since it was the United States that pushed for the amendment in the first place,” Kingston Reif, nuclear nonproliferation director at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, said in comments released by the Fissile Materials Working Group. Responding to one of Grassley's key objections to the House-approved language, Reif and another expert argued last week that existing law already allows for the execution of convicted nuclear terrorists.

"In the wake of the Boston attacks, it seems clear that an attack involving radiological or nuclear material would allow prosecutors plenty of latitude to seek the death penalty,” Reif and Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote in a World Politics Review column last Friday.

Story by Diane Barnes​, courtesy of Global Security Newswire.

Care about freedom of the press? Support independent investigative journalism.

Donate now
Donate now