U.S.-Russian nuclear energy cooperation: A missed opportunity

By Anton Khlopkov | August 31, 2009

The July Moscow summit didn’t produce any significant breakthroughs in U.S.-Russian relations. In fact, it really only highlighted that the problems Moscow and Washington are ready to cooperate on are international, not bilateral, in nature (e.g., nuclear nonproliferation, terrorism, drug trafficking). On further strategic arms reductions–the most anticipated topic at the summit–the early results aren’t as impressive as advertised. One reason is the tight schedule–described by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as “without precedent”–that the two delegations have to hammer out a deal. (Because START expires at the end of the year, Washington and Moscow need a replacement within the next three months.) Another reason is an unwillingness in both the United States and Russia to commit to arsenal cuts while each is in the process of reviewing the role of its nuclear arsenal. (Washington will release its Nuclear Posture Review at the start of next year; it is expected that Moscow will complete the latest revision of its Military Doctrine in September.)

As for the most promising area of practical bilateral cooperation, civilian nuclear energy–it was basically ignored altogether.

In addition to possessing the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, Russia and the United States also possess two of the largest civilian nuclear energy industries in the world–a situation conducive to both partnership and competition. But given the so-called “renaissance” of nuclear energy and the growing threat of proliferation, cooperation, not competition, would seem to be the prevailing trend for the foreseeable future.

Today, low-enriched uranium (LEU) supplied by Russia to the United States under the 1993 HEU-LEU deal (worth around $750 million per year) accounts for about 50 percent of the electricity generated by U.S. nuclear power plants. Therefore, it’s odd that U.S.-Russian nuclear energy cooperation isn’t based on a proper legislative footing–the implementation of the HEU-LEU deal is regulated by presidential order.

During the Bush administration, such cooperation seemed to be beginning, as Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin ordered in July 2006 that a nuclear energy cooperation agreement, or 123 agreement, between Moscow and Washington be negotiated. The agreement was initialed on June 29, 2007, and signed on May 6, 2008. It was submitted to Congress a week later, but withdrawn in September under the pretext of Russia’s policy during the South Ossetia crisis. In April of this year, Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barak Obama seemed to commit themselves to bringing back the agreement, vowing to “bring into force the bilateral agreement for cooperation in the field of peaceful uses of nuclear energy.” That passage had been directly “borrowed” from Bush and Putin’s April 2008 U.S.-Russia Strategic Framework Declaration.

If they worked together on nuclear energy projects, Washington and Moscow could go a long way toward developing innovative nuclear technologies that reduce the risk of proliferation while offering additional economic and environmental benefits. The need to cooperate with Russia on developing innovative reactors was mentioned in the 2005 U.S. Energy Policy Act. To this end, the United States and Russia have been working together on a gas turbine-modular helium reactor. (Research and development for the project is being conducted by the Kurchatov Institute in Russia and the San Diego-based General Atomics, among others.) The benefits offered by the reactor include a high efficiency ratio, the potential for the use of byproduct high-temperature thermal energy in energy-intensive industrial processes, an ability to accommodate various fuel cycles (uranium, plutonium, and thorium), and a reduced thermal and radiation impact on the environment. The reactor also can burn weapon-grade plutonium when it’s used in the fuel, making the project attractive to arms controllers since stocks of reactor-grade plutonium and excessive amounts of weapon-grade plutonium only continue to grow worldwide.

Yet without a 123 agreement in place, Russian and U.S. scientists can’t begin joint experiments for the new reactor because they can’t legally exchange nuclear materials. Other promising avenues for nuclear energy cooperation that require such an agreement include:

  • joint projects to build nuclear power plants in third countries;
  • joint projects on the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle (provided that Washington approves the decision to use plutonium in the reactors);
  • joint projects on fast breeder reactor-related technologies;
  • continued commercial supplies of Russian LEU to the United States after the expiration of the HEU-LEU agreement.

As for U.S.-Russian cooperation in uranium enrichment, some experts also have proposed that an enrichment facility using Russian centrifuge technology could be built in the United States if projects using U.S. centrifuge and SILEX laser-enrichment technology fail to achieve industrial-scale production–again, something only a 123 agreement could make possible.

In Moscow, Medvedev and Obama did agree to set up a Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Security Working Group co-chaired by Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s state-run nuclear corporation Rosatom, and Daniel Poneman, U.S. deputy energy secretary. The group has the potential to facilitate U.S.-Russian nuclear energy cooperation, especially if it manages to find the right balance between the two priorities reflected in its name. However, a lot of work still needs to be done before nuclear energy isn’t contingent on other aspects of U.S.-Russian relations. For instance, the “reset” of the U.S.-Russian relationship has led the Obama administration to increasingly link the prospects of nuclear energy cooperation to resolving the crisis over the Iranian nuclear program. That largely overturns many years of consultations between U.S. and Russian diplomats, who only 15 months ago finally managed to clear the Iranian hurdle on the way to developing bilateral cooperation in nuclear energy.

Obviously, Russia and the United States should continue their joint efforts regarding Iran. And considering how little progress has been made on defusing the crisis and with the May 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference looming on the horizon, those efforts might actually need to be stepped up. But linking the enactment of a 123 agreement to progress on Iran would be unproductive. Simply put, Russia wants to cooperate with Washington on nuclear energy projects, but not with the Iranian string attached.

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