By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 8, 2006; A01
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.
The United States has civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with the European atomic energy agency, along with China, Japan, Taiwan and 20 other countries. Bush recently sealed an agreement with India, which does require congressional approval because of that nation's unsanctioned weapons program.
Russia has sought such an agreement with the United States since the 1990s, when it began thinking about using its vast land mass to store much of the world's spent nuclear fuel. Estimating that it could make as much as $20 billion, Russia enacted a law in 2001 permitting the import, temporary storage and reprocessing of foreign nuclear fuel, despite 90 percent opposition in public opinion polls.
But the plan went nowhere. The United States controls spent fuel from nuclear material it provides, even in foreign countries, and Bunn estimates that as much as 95 percent of the potential world market for Russia was under U.S. jurisdiction. Without a cooperation agreement, none of the material could be sent to Russia, even though allies such as South Korea and Taiwan are eager to ship spent fuel there.
Like President Bill Clinton before him, Bush refused to consider it as long as Russia was helping Iran with its nuclear program. In the summer of 2002, according to Bunn, Bush sent Putin a letter saying an agreement could be reached only if "the central problem of assistance to Iran's missile, nuclear and advanced conventional weapons programs" was solved.
The concern over the nuclear reactor under construction at Bushehr, however, has faded. Russia agreed to provide all fuel to the facility and take it back once used, meaning it could not be turned into material for nuclear bombs. U.S. officials who once suspected that Russian scientists were secretly behind Iran's weapons program learned that critical assistance to Tehran came from Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.
The 2002 disclosure that Iran had secret nuclear sites separate from Bushehr shocked both the U.S. and Russian governments and seemed to harden Putin's stance toward Iran. He eventually agreed to refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council and signed on to a package of incentives and penalties recently sent to Tehran. At the same time, he has consistently opposed economic sanctions, military action or even tougher diplomatic language by the council, much to the frustration of U.S. officials.
Opening negotiations for a formal nuclear cooperation agreement could be used as a lever to move Putin further. Talks will inevitably take months, and the review in Congress will extend the process. If during that time Putin resists stronger measures against Iran, analysts said, the deal could unravel or critics on Capitol Hill could try to muster enough opposition to block it. If Putin proves cooperative on Iran, they said, it could ease the way toward final approval.
"This was one of the few areas where there was big money involved that you could hold over the Russians," said George Perkovich, an arms-control specialist and vice president of the Carnegie Endowment. "It's a handy stick, a handy thing to hold over the Russians."
Bush has an interest in taking the agreement all the way as well. His new Global Nuclear Energy Partnership envisions promoting civilian nuclear power around the world and eventually finding a way to reprocess spent fuel without the danger of leaving behind material that could be used for bombs. Until such technology is developed, Bush needs someplace to store the spent fuel from overseas, and Russia is the only volunteer.
"The Russians could make a lot of money importing foreign spent fuel, some of our allies would desperately like to be able to send their fuel to Russia, and maybe we could use the leverage to get other things done," such as "getting the Russians to be more forward-leaning on Iran," Bunn said.