Tuesday, May 13, 2008

U.S.-Russian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement Submitted to Congress

Today, the Bush administration formally submitted to Congress an agreement on civil nuclear cooperation (also known as a 123 Agreement) between Russia and the United States that was signed last week. The agreement will become effective unless both chambers of Congress pass a joint resolution of disapproval within 90 days to block it.

Iran has become a central point in the debate over the U.S.-Russia nuclear agreement as expressed in letters from members of Congress from both the Senate and House. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the following in response to being notified of the agreement:

“I am very concerned about the implications of an extensive new agreement for nuclear cooperation with Russia at a time when Russia has not been fully supportive of tough and far-reaching multilateral sanctions to convince Iran to cease its dangerous uranium enrichment activities. The Bush Administration has not received enough support from Russia in dealing with Iran to justify moving forward with this agreement at this time. Administration officials briefed our committee last week, but they were unable to offer convincing answers to our questions; we will give them a further opportunity in hearings on this subject next month.”

Just before stepping down last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a presidential decree singing into law economic sanctions agreed to by the United Nations Security Council in March (Resolution 1803). This may have been a result of pressure from the U.S. to implement the sanctions in exchange for the 123 Agreement, but it also may have simply been for internal political reasons. Russia was after all one of the original authors of Resolution 1803.

While the U.S.-Russia 123 agreement is questionable because it will pave the way for the controversial Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, Congressional concerns over Russia’s cooperation with Iran on the Bushehr reactor are misplaced. Last week, Senators Norm Coleman (R-MN) and Evan Bayh (D-IN) spearheaded a letter to President Bush expressing concerns over Russia's exports of nuclear fuel to Iran for the Bushehr nuclear power plant. In the letter, the Senators argue that the U.S.-Russian 123 agreement “would pave the way for the increased commercialization of Russia's nuclear energy sector and could be construed as U.S. approval of its proliferation activities in Iran.”

But, the Bush administration points to the Bushehr program to support arguments that Iran does not need a uranium enrichment program. The Bush administration changed its position last year on Bushehr in order to get Russian support for United Nations sanctions on Iran. The reversal in the U.S. position on the Bushehr reactor also followed Iran’s agreement to return spent nuclear fuel from the reactor back to Russia to ensure it doesn't extract plutonium to make nuclear weapons.

In a separate letter raising questions about the 123 Agreement sent to President Bush on May7, Representatives John Dingell (D-MI) and Bart Stupak (D-MI) said that Congress needs a “detailed assessment of Russian assistance to all aspects Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.” More importantly, the Dingell-Stupak letter raises very legitimate concerns regarding how the 123 Agreement will encourage greater cooperation on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), particularly given the fact that the Department of Energy has yet to develop a proliferation assessment of the program.

Representatives Dingell and Stupak cite their Committee on Energy and Commerce’s jurisdiction over civilian nuclear energy and its ongoing investigation of GNEP, a program to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from both domestic and foreign reactors for use in a new generation of reactors. The Committee’s investigation has so far revealed that there is not consensus on whether the U.S. should abandon its 30-year nonproliferation policy that prohibits the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Representatives Dingell and Stupak note that GNEP program would have the same results as commercial reprocessing in other countries including the U.K., France, Japan and Russia where there is an accumulation of 150 metric tons of separated plutonium that could be used to make nuclear weapons, representing a significant proliferation risk. And as an April 24, 2008 letter from nine U.S. senators urging funding cuts to GNEP demonstrates, there are other wide-ranging concerns about the program ranging from cost, to nuclear proliferation risks, to environmental contamination dangers.

The U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement certainly raises many questions about nonproliferation policy and double-standards and the agreement should be subject to scrutiny. U.S. plans to reprocess spent nuclear fuel would be particularly hypocritical when it is seeking to prevent the spread of reprocessing technology and expertise to other countries. Hopefully the agreement will also raise the debate about whether it is good policy for the U.S. to base strengthening its relationships with other countries on nuclear cooperation agreements and the implications it has for the nonproliferation and disarmament regime.

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