U.S. and Russia to Enter Civilian Nuclear Pact

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 8, 2006

President Bush has decided to permit extensive U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia for the first time, administration officials said yesterday, reversing decades of bipartisan policy in a move that would be worth billions of dollars to Moscow but could provoke an uproar in Congress.

Bush resisted such a move for years, insisting that Russia first stop building a nuclear power station for Iran near the Persian Gulf. But U.S. officials have shifted their view of Russia's collaboration with Iran and concluded that President Vladimir Putin has become a more constructive partner in trying to pressure Tehran to give up any aspirations for nuclear weapons.

The president plans to announce his decision at a meeting with Putin in St. Petersburg next Saturday before the annual summit of leaders from the Group of Eight major industrialized nations, officials said. The statement to be released by the two presidents would agree to start negotiations for the formal agreement required under U.S. law before the United States can engage in civilian nuclear cooperation.

In the administration's view, both sides would benefit. A nuclear cooperation agreement would clear the way for Russia to import and store thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel from U.S.-supplied reactors around the world, a lucrative business so far blocked by Washington. It could be used as an incentive to win more Russian cooperation on Iran. And it would be critical to Bush's plan to spread civilian nuclear energy to power-hungry countries because Russia would provide a place to send the used radioactive material.

At the same time, it could draw significant opposition from across the ideological spectrum, according to analysts who follow the issue. Critics wary of Putin's authoritarian course view it as rewarding Russia even though Moscow refuses to support sanctions against Iran. Others fearful of Russia's record of handling nuclear material see it as a reckless move that endangers the environment.

"You will have all the anti-Russian right against it, you will have all the anti-nuclear left against it, and you will have the Russian democracy center concerned about it too," said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear specialist at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Since Russia is already a nuclear state, such an agreement, once drafted, presumably would conform to the Atomic Energy Act and therefore would not require congressional approval. Congress could reject it only with majority votes by both houses within 90 legislative days.

Administration officials confirmed the president's decision yesterday only after it was first learned from outside nuclear experts privy to the situation. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the agreement before the summit.

The prospect, however, has been hinted at during public speeches in recent days. "We certainly will be talking about nuclear energy," Assistant Energy Secretary Karen A. Harbert told a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace event Thursday. "We need alternatives to hydrocarbons."

Some specialists said Bush's decision marks a milestone in U.S.-Russian relations, despite tension over Moscow's retreat from democracy and pressure on neighbors. "It signals that there's a sea change in the attitude toward Russia, that they're someone we can try to work with on Iran," said Rose Gottemoeller, a former Energy Department official in the Clinton administration who now directs the Carnegie Moscow Center. "It bespeaks a certain level of confidence in the Russians by this administration that hasn't been there before."

But others said the deal seems one-sided. "Just what exactly are we getting? That's the real mystery," said Henry D. Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Until now, he noted, the United States has insisted on specific actions by Russia to prevent Iran from developing bombs. "We're not getting any of that. We're getting an opportunity to give them money."

Environmentalists have denounced Russia's plans to transform itself into the world's nuclear dump. The country has a history of nuclear accidents and contamination. Its transportation network is antiquated and inadequate for moving vast quantities of radioactive material, critics say. And the country, they add, has not fully secured the nuclear facilities it already has against theft or accidents.

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