By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
MOSCOW, May 6 -- The United States and Russia signed a long-sought agreement Tuesday on civilian nuclear cooperation, which officials said would offer Russia lucrative new business while limiting the risk of material being used for weapons.
President Bush had announced his intent to pursue such a deal almost two years ago, but it was delayed by debate within the administration and in Congress over Moscow's policies, particularly toward Iran.
The framework agreement could open the way for Russia to import, store and reprocess thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel that had been supplied by the United States for reactors around the world, a business potentially worth billions of dollars.
The agreement would also reduce the risk of countries developing their own nuclear fuel facilities that could divert material into weapons programs, according to U.S. officials. And it would facilitate joint ventures between the U.S. and Russian nuclear industries, the officials said.
"The U.S. and Russia were once nuclear rivals," said U.S. Ambassador William J. Burns, who signed the pact in Moscow with Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia's state-owned nuclear company, Rosatom. "Today, we are nuclear partners with unique capabilities and unique responsibilities for global nuclear leadership."
Kiriyenko said the deal would help "to eliminate the legacy of the Cold War."
But the agreement is likely to draw opposition in both and the United States and Russia. It does not require congressional approval but could be blocked by majority votes in the House and Senate.
"It would be a mistake for the United States to provide Russia an important civilian nuclear benefit while Moscow itself continues to assist Iran's nuclear and missile programs," Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote in a May 1 letter to Bush.
Environmentalists in Russia have expressed concern about the country's ability to transport and safeguard spent nuclear fuel. Russia passed a law in 2001 allowing the reprocessing of nuclear fuel from other counties.
"There were very sharp debates about this at the start of the decade, and there are both environmental questions and concerns about Russia's capacity," said Alexander Pikayev, a disarmament specialist at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
Opinion polls show that most Russians oppose the government's plans. But the ability of grass-roots organizations to protest is limited in a country where the Kremlin tolerates little dissent.
The deal must be ratified by Russia's lower house of parliament, but that chamber is dominated by the United Russia party, which generally rubber-stamps Kremlin decisions.
Russia is planning to build a nuclear fuel reprocessing facility in eastern Siberia. An agreement with Washington is key to the plant's viability, as the United States controls the vast majority of the world's spent fuel through agreements with third countries that it supplies with nuclear material.
The agreement signed Tuesday, the last full day of Vladimir Putin's presidency, is a rare instance of open cooperation in a relationship that has frayed over a host of issues, from the expansion of the NATO military alliance to Russia's stance on Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"A lot of this was done out of a sense of legacy and obligation because nothing in it needs to be done now or done at all," said Henry D. Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. "On Iran, Russia's support has not been zero, but to say Moscow has been very helpful is a stretch. You have to argue that there has been a very stiff turnaround" inside the Bush administration.
An agreement was initialed just before a Bush-Putin summit last summer, but some officials in Washington appeared to balk, suspicious about Russia's continuing cooperation with Iran. Russia is helping Iran build a nuclear power plant and is a major arms supplier.
International attention has focused on Iran's controversial program to produce enriched uranium, which can be used either as reactor fuel or in making weapons.
"Two years ago, no one would have believed that Russia would support three consecutive U.N. Security Council resolutions against Iran," Pikayev said. "It appears to have helped to turn the debates inside the American administration in favor of this agreement."