Bush, Putin to Seek Nuclear Cooperation Pact

Miles A. Pomper

President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed July 15 to open negotiations on an agreement that would permit full nuclear cooperation between their countries. They vowed, as well, to encourage other states to renounce some civil nuclear technologies that can also be used to produce nuclear weapons.

A joint statement by the two leaders just before a Group of Eight (G-8) summit in St. Petersburg said that the measures would help to “facilitate the safe and secure expansion of nuclear energy worldwide.”

Russia has long sought a civilian cooperation accord with the United States commonly known as a 123 agreement, after Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act, which governs such pacts. In particular, Russia had indicated it wished to serve as a repository for U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel from countries such as South Korea, Switzerland, and Taiwan, estimating it could earn as much as $20 billion from the enterprise. The Clinton and Bush administrations had held off, however, trying to use the prospect of such an agreement as leverage to encourage Russia to restrict its nuclear dealings with Iran and otherwise support U.S. policy goals vis-à-vis Tehran.

Russia is constructing a light-water nuclear reactor near the Iranian city of Bushehr and has discussed the possibility of building additional plants. Moscow has rejected U.S. pleas to abandon or severely restrict such projects and has balked at sanctions and other punitive measures on Iran.

But in recent years, U.S. officials say that Moscow has taken other positive steps, such as demanding that Tehran return spent fuel from the Bushehr reactor to Russia. U.S. officials had feared that Iran might separate the plutonium from such spent fuel and use it to provide fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Moreover, some outside experts, such as former Clinton administration officials Matthew Bunn and Laura Holgate, have said that a 123 agreement could yield other benefits. For example, they claim it could provide the international community with greater access to Russia’s civil nuclear facilities and that revenues could fund efforts to secure or dismantle Soviet-era nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has been seeking to enlist Russia’s participation in its new Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). The program aims to develop new nuclear fuel-cycle technologies, including new forms of spent-fuel reprocessing. The administration claims these technologies will help nuclear power play a growing role in meeting U.S. and global energy needs while reducing the danger that civilian nuclear programs might be diverted for nuclear weapons purposes. Some lawmakers have questioned the technical, diplomatic, and financial basis of the GNEP program. Nonetheless, a 123 agreement would expand the opportunities for Russian cooperation.

For example, Russia right now is the only candidate to serve as a spent-fuel repository until the ambitious goals of GNEP are realized, a process that even administration officials acknowledge could take decades. Russian officials have also claimed that a 123 agreement would provide a legal grounding for more than 20 ongoing, joint nuclear programs, although it is far from clear that a pact is needed for these purposes.

If an eventual agreement were viewed as conforming to standard practice, Congress might have relatively little say in whether it enters into force. Under the Atomic Energy Act, such agreements with a nuclear-weapon state such as Russia automatically become law unless voted down by majority votes in both the House and Senate within 90 legislative days. By contrast, nonconforming agreements normally require both chambers to vote in support of the measure.

With or without a formal vote, some lawmakers are likely to raise concerns about the agreement. Congress has regularly scolded Moscow for its cooperation with Iran and may see another opportunity to do so.

Many lawmakers are also concerned that an agreement could encourage Russia to reprocess spent fuel. It has been U.S. policy since the 1970s to discourage this practice, and the United States has provided billions of dollars in aid to Russia to phase out its existing plutonium-production reactors, with the last reactor slated to close by 2011. (See ACT, April 2005.) Under U.S. law, the United States has to approve the reprocessing or enrichment of any batch of U.S.-origin fuel, although a 1982 executive order by President Ronald Reagan eased these restrictions in the case of Japan and the European consortium Euratom.

Potential efforts by Russian officials to tie the negotiations to separate discussions about exporting uranium to the United States may provoke opposition to the 123 agreement from lawmakers such as Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the powerful chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Administration officials made clear that they are only in the initial stages of determining what their approach to such thorny issues might be. “We’ve made a decision to open negotiations on a range of cooperation and the agreement that would be required to engage in that cooperation,” National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters July 12. “That’s really all we’ve done,” he said.

Russia earlier this year submitted a proposed draft agreement, which U.S. officials have integrated into their own counteroffer, which has been circulated for interagency approval. No dates have been set yet to begin negotiations.

Other Fuel-Cycle Issues

In addition to moving forward on the nuclear cooperation agreement and GNEP, Putin and Bush endorsed two other plans designed to provide non-nuclear-weapon states with nuclear fuel so they will forgo uranium enrichment and plutonium and spent-fuel reprocessing. Low-enriched uranium is used to fuel nuclear power plants but highly enriched uranium can also provide the fissile material for nuclear weapons. Iran’s pursuit of enrichment technologies is at the crux of the current diplomatic standoff over its nuclear program.

In the joint statement, Russia pledged to establish “a system of international centers to provide nuclear fuel services, including uranium enrichment, under IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards.” Russian atomic energy chief Sergei Kiriyenko told reporters July 15 that the first center in Siberia would be ready for operation under IAEA supervision next year. Russia sought during the past year to encourage Iran to enrich its fuel at such a center, but Tehran rebuffed the offer after showing initial interest.

The joint statement also reiterated the two countries’ support for a proposal that they and four other enrichment providers made in late May to establish a “multilateral mechanism for reliable access to nuclear fuel.” The proposals are likely to be discussed at a special IAEA meeting Sept. 19-20 to develop a “new framework” that would encourage countries to renounce uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing technologies. (See ACT, July/August 2006.)

A July 16 “Statement on Non-Proliferation” backed by the G-8 leaders endorsed these efforts and extended for another year a two-year-old moratorium related to enrichment and reprocessing technologies that was first endorsed at the June 2004 G-8 summit in Sea Island, Georgia. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

“It would be prudent in the next year not to inaugurate new initiatives involving transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to additional states,” the eight leaders agreed. “We call upon all other states to adopt this strategy of prudence.”