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Russia Looks to Tighten U.S. Nuclear Ties

Miles A. Pomper

Russian officials are eager to work with the United States both to increase their share of the U.S. civil nuclear market and promote the worldwide growth of nuclear power. But to do so, they will first need to address nonproliferation and economic concerns voiced by U.S. officials and lawmakers.

Nikolay Spasskiy, the deputy head of Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency, told a Washington audience Oct. 3 that Russia is eager to “dovetail” its own initiatives with the Bush administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). Both countries claim their efforts are intended to slow the spread of potentially dangerous nuclear technologies that can be used to produce either nuclear fuel or the fissile material used for nuclear weapons.

Bush administration officials say that GNEP aims to develop less proliferation-prone technology for generating new nuclear fuel and disposing of spent nuclear fuel. Currently, the same technology used to enrich low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel for civil nuclear reactors can also be used to provide the highly enriched uranium used in some nuclear weapons. Moreover, reprocessing spent fuel to help generate another type of nuclear fuel separates plutonium, the other fissile material used in nuclear weapons. Some U.S. lawmakers have questioned the technical, diplomatic, and financial basis of the GNEP program.

Spasskiy said that Russia is eager to couple GNEP with its own initiative under which Russia has proposed to establish a system of international centers to provide nuclear fuel services, including uranium enrichment. The first of these centers is slated to open in Siberia next year. Russian officials have said that they would like the facilities to produce enriched fuel for use in reactors and to burn elements of the spent fuel from those reactors. Russian officials have pledged that the centers would operate under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards to prevent civil materials and technologies from being diverted to military purposes.

To further U.S.-Russian cooperation, the Kremlin is seeking to strike several deals with the United States. The first would be to conclude a civilian nuclear cooperation accord with the United States, commonly known as a 123 agreement, after Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act that establishes the requirements for such pacts. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in July to pursue such an agreement.

U.S. officials have already presented their Russian counterparts with a draft agreement, according to Spasskiy and other Russian officials. They described it as a good basis for negotiations, which are slated to continue in Moscow in November.

Russia has long sought such a pact, although its public rationale for doing so has shifted recently.

In the past, Russia had indicated it needed the agreement in order to import for reprocessing or storage U.S.-origin spent fuel from countries such as South Korea, Switzerland, and Taiwan. But more recently, it has downplayed this aspect.

Spasskiy said that “this is a taboo subject for a while. It is extremely unpalatable to [Russian] public opinion.” But he said that in the future, when the Russian public saw the economic benefits that might be gained by such an approach, particularly from reprocessing, it might be more willing to consider importing spent fuel. Russian nongovernmental experts say that despite some recent public remarks, plans are moving ahead for striking deals with third countries for the importation of foreign spent fuel.

U.S. policymakers are likely to raise questions about any Russian plans to reprocess foreign fuel using current technology, since it produces separated plutonium. 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.

More immediately, Spasskiy said, Russia would like to conclude such an agreement to provide a framework for future technical accords. Currently, he said, any time a new nuclear program is initiated between the United States and Russia, negotiators must go through a difficult and time-consuming process with agencies in each capital to meet regulations governing the transfer of fissile materials and sensitive information.

The second deal Russia is seeking is to amend a 1992 agreement that provides the legal basis for importing Russian LEU into the United States. Under a 20-year program begun in 1993, Russia has converted 275 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium into LEU and provided nearly half of the LEU used in nuclear power reactors in the United States.

Under the 1992 agreement, however, the government-established U.S. Enrichment Corporation (USEC) has been the sole organization permitted to sell the Russian fuel. The Kremlin views USEC as an unnecessary middleman.

Moreover, Russian officials are growing concerned as the 2013 end of the program nears without a new arrangement. They fear they will be shut out of the U.S. market entirely, as U.S. utilities often negotiate long-term supply contracts many years in advance. They have proposed a system under which they would be allowed to sell Russian enrichment services freely to U.S utilities but have said they would be willing initially to limit any sales to no more than 25 percent of the U.S. market. The fuel that would be provided under this scheme would not be down-blended from weapons material, they say.

U.S. utilities have supported this effort while lawmakers representing New Mexico and Ohio, states where USEC and a European consortium have proposed to build enrichment facilities, have balked.

Lawmakers have also cast a wary eye on efforts by Russia to modify a program under which each country is to dispose of 34 metric tons of excess weapons plutonium by blending the material into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear reactors.

Lawmakers have been concerned that Russia has signaled that rather than incurring the cost of building new facilities to produce MOX fuel for existing light-water nuclear reactors, it wants to use existing facilities to produce a different blend of MOX fuel instead that could be used in existing and possibly future, advanced, fast neutron reactors. Russia says that such reactors could eventually produce less nuclear waste, although experts caution that doing so would require that the fuel be run through many times over a period that could last decades. These reactors could also lead to the production of more plutonium if run in certain ways.

Spasskiy said Russia was committed to disposing of the 34 tons of plutonium. He said Russia intends to start disposal with an existing pilot, fast neutron reactor but left the door open to using MOX technology with light-water reactors. Russian officials, he said, have found the current technology more complicated than they originally envisaged and complained that promised international assistance to construct new facilities had fallen billions of dollars short.