The Arms Control Association is an "exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size." 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
Hill Pushes Russian Weapons Uranium Elimination

Miles A. Pomper

Congress approved legislation Sept. 27 intended to pressure Russia to continue and expand a program that down-blends Russian weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel for U.S. nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Sept. 8 that President George W. Bush was withdrawing from congressional consideration a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia.

The uranium legislation, drafted by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and included as part of a bill temporarily funding government operations until next year, would effectively alter an agreement that U.S. and Russian negotiators signed Feb. 1. That agreement was intended to govern Russia’s ability, particularly after 2013, to export LEU to the United States for use in U.S. nuclear power plants. If enacted, the United States would eventually concede about 20 percent of the U.S. LEU market to Russia, but the legislation would not dictate whether this fuel originated as natural uranium or from weapons. (See ACT, April 2008.)

Since 1993, the United States has restricted imports of Russian LEU to those that came from uranium down-blended from weapons-grade HEU. That Megatons to Megawatts program has down-blended more than 337 tons of HEU and is slated to down-blend another 163 tons before it expires in 2013. But Russia, which would prefer to take the more lucrative path of enriching natural uranium in its underused enrichment facilities, has successfully challenged the U.S. restrictions at the U.S. Court of International Trade, threatening both the current and future accords. In doing so, Russia has followed a precedent set by the European enrichment consortium Eurodif. The Eurodif case was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in September 2007, but the Bush administration has appealed that case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear it in November.

Domenici’s amendment would provide Russia with incentives to down-blend another 300 metric tons of HEU after 2013, enough for more than 10,000 nuclear weapons. According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, an independent experts group, Russia has well more than 600 metric tons of HEU in its weapons stockpile not subject to the current agreement, compared to about 250 metric tons for the United States.

Domenici’s amendment would limit Russia’s export of enriched natural uranium after 2013 to 17 percent of the U.S. market until it had reached the 300-metric-ton goal. But if Russia continued to down-blend uranium at its current rate, it would grant Russian exporters as much as 25 percent of the U.S. market. The measure also seeks to cut off Russian access to the U.S. market if Russia abandons the February agreement.

The congressional action followed only a few weeks after Rice’s announcement. Her decision was not surprising given the lack of congressional support for the pact in the wake of Russia’s August military confrontation with Georgia and amid concern from many lawmakers about Russia’s nuclear ties to Iran. (See ACT, September 2008.)

“Unfortunately, given the current environment, the time is not right for this agreement,” Rice said in a statement. “We will reevaluate the situation at a later date as we follow developments closely.” Effectively, however, a decision on whether and when to proceed with the agreement will be left to the next president.

The Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), has generally adopted a very tough stand on Russia. The Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), has said that Russia’s decision to recognize the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia “makes it impossible for Congress to enact the civil nuclear agreement.”

In a Sept. 9 statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the U.S. action, saying that “[w]e see the decision of President George W. Bush…to pull the agreement on the peaceful use of nuclear energy as mistaken and politicized.”

Russian officials did, however, leave the door open to future cooperation. “Whatever the decisions at the current time, we consider that it is a promising area for mutual cooperation and Russia and America will definitely cooperate, if not now then in the future,” said First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov.

In a related matter, a nuclear cooperation agreement between Russia and Australia is also foundering after the Russian-Georgian conflict. Russia and Australia in September 2007 signed the pact, which could provide Russia with additional uranium for nuclear power programs worth as much as $1 billion per year. (See ACT, October 2007.) Russia has the world’s largest share of uranium-enrichment capacity but far more limited uranium-mining capabilities.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said last year that Russia has “a sufficient” and even “excessive supply of weapons-grade uranium, but plans to build 30 nuclear power stations in the next 15 years and needs…Australian uranium to ensure their operation.” Russian officials have said the agreement could lead to the importation of as much as 4,000 tons of Australian uranium (more than Russia currently produces) each year. Australia has the world’s largest uranium reserves.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told the Australian parliament on Sept. 1 that the future of the agreement would be affected by Russia’s relations with Georgia. “When the government comes to consider ratification of the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with the Russian Federation, we will take into account not just the merits of the agreement, but events which have occurred in Georgia and ongoing events in Georgia and the state of Australia’s bilateral relationship with the Russian Federation,” Smith said.

Prodding the government, the Australian parliament’s Treaties Committee urged Sept. 18 that uranium sales not move forward until Moscow clearly separates civilian and nuclear facilities and until the International Atomic Energy Agency can carry out inspections in Russia. Such inspections are not required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in nuclear-weapon states such as Russia.