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Russian Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Deal: Prelude to Controversy?

2:56 PM, Dec 9, 2010 • By HENRY SOKOLSKI
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While nuclear experts in Washington are wringing their hands over the fate of the New START agreement in the U.S. Senate, a formal U.S.-Russian civilian nuclear cooperative agreement came into force today with barely a whisper of public debate. In time, though, this deal which the White House quietly pushed through is likely to cause quite a stir.

Russian Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Deal: Prelude to Controversy?

One reason why so little attention has been paid to the agreement is because it is unclear what its immediate impact might be. On its face, the pact is mostly symbolic. Given a Russian business environment that is unfavorable to contracting and liability laws, new U.S. nuclear reactor sales to Russia are unlikely. Russia is simply too scary a climate for American nuclear vendors, unless they are doing so as contractors protected by the U.S. government. 

If American vendors are practically shut out from doing any immediate business in Russia, though, the agreement may still pave the way for Russia to make a killing of its own in time. In particular, Russia may eventually go into importing, storing or reprocessing spent reactor fuel of U.S. origin from Europe and Asia. Over one or two decades, this business could be worth billions of dollars. 

But more important than prospective nuclear Russian imports are its immediate plans for export. At the very least, Russia’s reactor export efforts will no longer suffer the stigma of being the only nuclear supplier not to have full nuclear cooperation with the U.S. The pact also should help Moscow seal a deal to enrich uranium for U.S. power reactors. Like the British, Dutch and Germans, who operate an enrichment plant in New Mexico, and the French, who plan to build one in Idaho, Russia's government-owned nuclear vendor Rosatom has now has been given the U.S. government seal of nuclear approval to do the same. Moreover, Moscow will likely try to secure billions of dollars in U.S. government loan guarantees identical to those the U.S. Department of Energy just granted to the French.

This is sure to raise eyebrows on Capitol Hill. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-R), the ranking member and soon to be chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and other Republican members of the committee were clearly displeased with the White House’s unwillingness to send an official to a hearing on the deal that was held in September. At that time, members on both sides of the aisle expressed their desire to tighten the nonproliferation provisions of the Atomic Energy Act so that any future agreement like this one would have to secure majority approval in both houses—which this deal did not. Moreover, they sought to condition the ability of foreign nuclear vendors’ doing business in the United States on the basis of those foreign states meeting certain nonproliferation criteria. In this regard, it hardly helps that the current White House did not do a very thorough job reviewing Moscow’s nonproliferation behavior. Indeed, the Government Accountability Office found the administration's assessment of Russian activities especially sloppy as it related to Iran. 

Bottom line: Although the deal with Russia may be finalized, more debate and controversy over civilian Russian-U.S. nuclear cooperation could be just around corner.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and editor of Nuclear Power’s Global Expansion: Weighing Its Costs and Risks (forthcoming).

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