U.S.-Russian nuclear agreement raises serious concerns

By Robert Alvarez | June 16, 2008

On May 13, President George W. Bush submitted to Congress an agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation with the Russian Federation. The “123 agreement”–named after a provision of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act–would establish a 30-year framework for nuclear commerce between the former Cold War enemies, allowing the transfer of nuclear commodities such as reactor components and U.S. government-owned technologies and materials to Russia.

Support from some quarters was almost immediate. In a May 30 New York Times op-ed, Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar and former Georgia Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, architects of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, wrote that passage of the 123 agreement would stop Russia from helping countries like Iran “walk up to the threshold of a nuclear bomb by building an enrichment plant for allegedly peaceful energy needs, and then simply renounce its binding obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty not to build a bomb.” Similarly, a Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) report by former Assistant Secretary for Nonproliferation Robert Einhorn, Bulletin Science and Security Board member Rose Gottemoeller, former State Department official Fred McGoldrick, Scowcroft Group principal Dan Poneman, and former Energy Department official Jon Wolfsthal concluded that the 123 agreement will “facilitate cooperation in preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.” Pavel Podvig, a Bulletin web-edition columnist and Stanford research associate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, flatly states that anyone against the agreement is simply wrong, “[W]hatever their concerns, blocking the cooperation agreement is the worst way to address them.”

But despite such ardent support, Congress remains unconvinced. Last fall, the House of Representatives blocked the 123 agreement by an overwhelming margin. The Senate has a similar bill before it with 70 cosponsors. At a U.S. House Foreign Relations Committee hearing to debate the agreement, committee chairman Democratic Rep. Howard Berman of California, questioned whether the United States could “gain leverage by delaying its implementation, or by insisting on presidential certifications regarding Russian behavior before it can be implemented?” Thirty-two U.S. senators expressed similar concerns about the agreement in a letter they sent to Bush.

The 123 agreement is facing growing bipartisan opposition for two reasons: (1) Concerns that Russia is continuing to provide nuclear and military assistance to Iran; and (2) fears that the agreement plays into the Bush administration’s aggressive efforts to encourage the use of plutonium in nuclear reactors, which is seen as a threat to nonproliferation.

Russian assistance to Iran

The fact that Russian nuclear institutions’ are sharing technology and knowledge with Iran is a continuing concern for all–even supporters of the 123 agreement. The CSIS report acknowledges that Moscow has “failed to stop all Russian entities from engaging in sensitive cooperation with Iran,” but it adds that Washington has recently received “strong and explicit assurances that any sensitive cooperation between Russian entities and Iran would be stopped.” Yet, these assurances could ultimately mean nothing, as it’s questionable whether Moscow has control over its commercial and military nuclear organizations.

Plus, the Bush administration has done little to encourage the Russian government. In 2006, the White House ignored broader U.S. government concern about Russian-Iranian missile cooperation in order to allow negotiations on the 123 agreement to proceed. In fact, during the March 2007 negotiations, the U.S. Office of National Intelligence informed Congress that “individual Russian entities continue to provide assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile programs.” And this February, Iran launched a missile reportedly of Russian origin with an estimated range of 1,200 miles. Yet, after that revelation, the Bush administration still informed Congress that it would waive the requirement mandated in the 2005 Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act to certify that Moscow had ended such cooperation.

Additional damning evidence emerged in March, when the Government Accountability Office reported that the Energy Department had provided millions of dollars to Russian nuclear institutions, which then secretly turned around and worked with Iran. This included funding to separate fissile material such as plutonium from spent fuel in support of the Bush administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP).

Soon thereafter, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear-tipped missiles “remain a matter of serious concern.” Yet, the State Department neglected to mention Russia’s ongoing missile assistance to Iran in its unclassified nuclear proliferation assessment, which was submitted with the 123 agreement.

Sacrificing nonproliferation for GNEP

GNEP is a major element of the Bush administration’s nuclear energy policy. Its principal goal is to sell U.S. nuclear fuel, know-how, and services to nations that agree to forego technologies that aid in the production of nuclear weapons, notably reprocessing and uranium enrichment. To sweeten the deal, the United States and its partners would take back spent fuel for reprocessing, where weapon-grade material such as plutonium would be separated for reuse in U.S. nuclear reactors.

The 123 agreement with Russia can be seen as the cornerstone of the Bush administration’s plan to promote GNEP and reverse Washington’s long-standing nonproliferation policy to discourage reprocessing and the use of plutonium as a nuclear fuel. While the agreement doesn’t specifically authorize reprocessing, it does allow U.S.-origin spent fuel to be sent to Russia, which opens the door to reprocessing. Since more than one-third of the spent reactor fuel from foreign nuclear reactors was produced in the United States its shipment to Russia would require U.S. consent, which the 123 agreement provides. Several bilateral U.S.-Russian declarations reveal this intent and establish GNEP as a basic element of U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation, including the December 2006 Bilateral Action Plan to Enhance Global and Nuclear Energy Cooperation, the July 2007 Declaration on Nuclear Energy and Nonproliferation, and the April 2008 U.S.-Russia Strategic Framework Declaration.

Although Russian reprocessing of U.S.-origin spent fuel requires an amendment to the current 123 agreement and the Atomic Energy Act provides Congress with a 15-day “report and wait” period, Congress doesn’t have an opportunity to alter or block such a change, which can be made by an executive branch decision. For their part, Russian nuclear officials recently expressed no interest in receiving U.S.-origin spent fuel, but the Russian Duma did approve the importation of this material in 2001. And with Russia currently reprocessing spent fuel from Ukraine and Bulgaria, it’s easy to imagine the country reprocessing U.S.-origin spent fuel as well, a move that could earn Russia’s nascent commercial nuclear industry billions of dollars.

The 123 agreement is foolhardy in other ways, too. Many of its goals are already being met, underscoring its lack of necessity. Advocates point to the benefits of the agreement in terms of encouraging stable nuclear fuel supplies, but nuclear fuel assurances, a key element to discourage countries from building their own enrichment facilities, are already in place. Nor is it likely that Russia will become a major customer for U.S. reactor hardware, since almost no nuclear-related hardware is made in the United States. U.S. nuclear firms have also made it clear that the absence of adequate liability insurance in Russia makes it too risky for them to engage in nuclear commerce there.

In the end, the agreement will not encourage a lucrative nuclear partnership, but instead, it will leave U.S. taxpayers with the bill for GNEP’s expansion–a scheme that encourages proliferation and makes the world less safe.

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