Articles about Russia have been coming fast and furious this week with St. Petersburg hosting the G-8 summit for the richest countries in the world. For the Kremlin, the most important story is that the nation is finally being allowed to join the World Trade Organization, five years after the U.S. agreed to Chinese WTO membership - this in spite of China having a far worse record on pirating intellectual property and denying human rights than Russia.
For U.S. foreign policy, the most important announcement this week is the Bush Administration's agreement with the Kremlin to liberalize trade in peaceful nuclear technology. The deal would be similar to the nuclear pact the Bush Administration negotiated with India, the world's largest democracy, and an emerging Asian superpower capable of competing with China.
In return for U.S. technology and investment, Russia agrees that the reactor it is building in Iran will be incapable of enriching uranium, and all spent fuel rods will be returned to Russia. Of course, preventing individual Russian nuclear scientists from working at Iran's enrichment plants is the real issue, but one that can be solved if those Russian physicists are given plenty of peaceful work to do elsewhere. Moreover, critics can hardly call this initiative radical - it is consistent with the 1990s bipartisan Nunn-Lugar legislation, which allocated $10 billion U.S. taxpayer dollars in the last decade to secure Russia's nuclear arsenal and brainpower from falling into the wrong hands. Indeed, Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Curt Weldon thinks that this deal could have happened three years ago, if it were not for tensions arising from the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Map of Soviet-designed reactors in Europe
As the July 8 Washington Post article points out below, much more work is necessary to make sure Russia is ready to securely transport nuclear waste from abroad and build the next generation of safer pebble-bed reactors. Nonetheless, foreigners have been allowed to inspect Soviet-legacy Russian plants to insure that there will be no repeat of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Bush and Putin at Crawford High School in Texas, November 2001 - this week in interviews, Putin called Bush a "friend" while dismissing Cheney's recent criticism of his policies as an "unsuccessful hunting shot"
President Bush is probably hoping that the nuclear deal can bring U.S.-Russian relations back to where they were during the summer of 2001, when Bush met with Putin in Slovenia and declared that "I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country." As former Bush 43 speechwriter David Frum noted in his 2002 biography, The Right Man, Beltway insiders from both sides of the aisle jeered Bush at the time as a simpleton who was being manipulated by the former KGB spymaster. Yet immediately after 9/11, in an unprecedented show of cooperation, Putin permitted American forces to use Russian airspace and former Soviet bases in Central Asia to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Bush's friendly words at that time were matched by the deeds from the Russian President. Now Putin is rebutting Vice President Cheney's recent harsh criticism of his administration with his own prize - access for Western companies (as minority stakeholders) to the former Yukos reassembled as Rosneft, and Gazprom megaprojects off Sakhalin and in the Barents Sea. Since Putin has hired the Washington, D.C.-based Ketchum PR firm to improve Russia's image in America, he can answer critics complaining about Western dependency on Russian gas with a simple question: would Americans rather buy gas from Russia or from Qatar - the country that hosts and funds Al-Jazeera?
If Europe and the rest of the industrialized world doesn't like depending on Russian gas, they can choose from four strategies:
1) Import more gas from Central Asia via Ukraine and also Turkey's BTC pipeline - this was the policy advocated by the Clinton Administration and the Bush Administration has continued this policy to fruition.
2) Import LNG from West Africa and the Arab world, accepting the risks of instability in these countries.
3) Convert coal into gas and fuels using the Fischer-Tropfsch process.
4) Build a new generation of low-waste and high efficiency nuclear plants.
India and China are going to be building one reactor on average every year for the next thirty years. Concerns about man-made global warming have driven even the founder of Greenpeace to say it's time to stop worrying and love nuclear power. This is what makes a key provision of the energy pact so important: Russia's offer to securely store nuclear waste in mineshafts in Siberia, far away from population centers.
It is no secret that while fighting new nuclear plants, many of the most committed anti-nuclear activists have tried to prevent the disposal of radioactive waste at the federal government's selected site in Yucca Mountain, Nevada so that commercial reactors in the U.S. would eventually be forced to shut down when the stuff piled up on-site. Now that Russia is preparing to accept and safely deposit much of the world's nuclear waste in Siberian mineshafts, decades of litigation by anti-nuclear activists to hold up waste disposal may prove to have been in vain.
In Congress, Republican critics of this deal will claim that Russia is not really doing enough to stop Iran from building nuclear bombs; Democrats will argue, as some did even against the India deal, that Russia should not be trusted with U.S. technology. Nonetheless, when Congressional legislation to approve the deal comes up for a vote, the real motive of many groups in Washington will be to stop a global nuclear train they fear is already leaving the station. Ironically enough, it is environmentalists who have provided the most compelling argument for a crash program to develop nuclear energy around the world, with national security hawks not far behind in stating that our security requires reducing the flow of petrodollars to the Middle East. On both sides of the Atlantic, for slightly different reasons, the wedge that will split pragmatic environmentalists from diehard anti-nuclear greens is already being sharpened.
The full Washington Post article is below:
U.S. and Russia to Enter Civilian Nuclear Pact
Bush Reverses Long-Standing Policy, Allows Agreement That May Provide Leverage on Iran
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 8, 2006; A01
President Bush has decided to permit extensive U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia for the first time, administration officials said yesterday, reversing decades of bipartisan policy in a move that would be worth billions of dollars to Moscow but could provoke an uproar in Congress.
Bush resisted such a move for years, insisting that Russia first stop building a nuclear power station for Iran near the Persian Gulf. But U.S. officials have shifted their view of Russia's collaboration with Iran and concluded that President Vladimir Putin has become a more constructive partner in trying to pressure Tehran to give up any aspirations for nuclear weapons.
The president plans to announce his decision at a meeting with Putin in St. Petersburg next Saturday before the annual summit of leaders from the Group of Eight major industrialized nations, officials said. The statement to be released by the two presidents would agree to start negotiations for the formal agreement required under U.S. law before the United States can engage in civilian nuclear cooperation.
In the administration's view, both sides would benefit. A nuclear cooperation agreement would clear the way for Russia to import and store thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel from U.S.-supplied reactors around the world, a lucrative business so far blocked by Washington. It could be used as an incentive to win more Russian cooperation on Iran. And it would be critical to Bush's plan to spread civilian nuclear energy to power-hungry countries because Russia would provide a place to send the used radioactive material.
At the same time, it could draw significant opposition from across the ideological spectrum, according to analysts who follow the issue. Critics wary of Putin's authoritarian course view it as rewarding Russia even though Moscow refuses to support sanctions against Iran. Others fearful of Russia's record of handling nuclear material see it as a reckless move that endangers the environment.
"You will have all the anti-Russian right against it, you will have all the anti-nuclear left against it, and you will have the Russian democracy center concerned about it too," said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear specialist at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Since Russia is already a nuclear state, such an agreement, once drafted, presumably would conform to the Atomic Energy Act and therefore would not require congressional approval. Congress could reject it only with majority votes by both houses within 90 legislative days.
Administration officials confirmed the president's decision yesterday only after it was first learned from outside nuclear experts privy to the situation. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the agreement before the summit.
The prospect, however, has been hinted at during public speeches in recent days. "We certainly will be talking about nuclear energy," Assistant Energy Secretary Karen A. Harbert told a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace event Thursday. "We need alternatives to hydrocarbons."
Some specialists said Bush's decision marks a milestone in U.S.-Russian relations, despite tension over Moscow's retreat from democracy and pressure on neighbors. "It signals that there's a sea change in the attitude toward Russia, that they're someone we can try to work with on Iran," said Rose Gottemoeller, a former Energy Department official in the Clinton administration who now directs the Carnegie Moscow Center. "It bespeaks a certain level of confidence in the Russians by this administration that hasn't been there before."
But others said the deal seems one-sided. "Just what exactly are we getting? That's the real mystery," said Henry D. Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Until now, he noted, the United States has insisted on specific actions by Russia to prevent Iran from developing bombs. "We're not getting any of that. We're getting an opportunity to give them money."
Environmentalists have denounced Russia's plans to transform itself into the world's nuclear dump. The country has a history of nuclear accidents and contamination. Its transportation network is antiquated and inadequate for moving vast quantities of radioactive material, critics say. And the country, they add, has not fully secured the nuclear facilities it already has against theft or accidents.
The United States has civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with the European atomic energy agency, along with China, Japan, Taiwan and 20 other countries. Bush recently sealed an agreement with India, which does require congressional approval because of that nation's unsanctioned weapons program.
Russia has sought such an agreement with the United States since the 1990s, when it began thinking about using its vast land mass to store much of the world's spent nuclear fuel. Estimating that it could make as much as $20 billion, Russia enacted a law in 2001 permitting the import, temporary storage and reprocessing of foreign nuclear fuel, despite 90 percent opposition in public opinion polls.
But the plan went nowhere. The United States controls spent fuel from nuclear material it provides, even in foreign countries, and Bunn estimates that as much as 95 percent of the potential world market for Russia was under U.S. jurisdiction. Without a cooperation agreement, none of the material could be sent to Russia, even though allies such as South Korea and Taiwan are eager to ship spent fuel there.
Like President Bill Clinton before him, Bush refused to consider it as long as Russia was helping Iran with its nuclear program. In the summer of 2002, according to Bunn, Bush sent Putin a letter saying an agreement could be reached only if "the central problem of assistance to Iran's missile, nuclear and advanced conventional weapons programs" was solved.
The concern over the nuclear reactor under construction at Bushehr, however, has faded. Russia agreed to provide all fuel to the facility and take it back once used, meaning it could not be turned into material for nuclear bombs. U.S. officials who once suspected that Russian scientists were secretly behind Iran's weapons program learned that critical assistance to Tehran came from Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.
The 2002 disclosure that Iran had secret nuclear sites separate from Bushehr shocked both the U.S. and Russian governments and seemed to harden Putin's stance toward Iran. He eventually agreed to refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council and signed on to a package of incentives and penalties recently sent to Tehran. At the same time, he has consistently opposed economic sanctions, military action or even tougher diplomatic language by the council, much to the frustration of U.S. officials.
Opening negotiations for a formal nuclear cooperation agreement could be used as a lever to move Putin further. Talks will inevitably take months, and the review in Congress will extend the process. If during that time Putin resists stronger measures against Iran, analysts said, the deal could unravel or critics on Capitol Hill could try to muster enough opposition to block it. If Putin proves cooperative on Iran, they said, it could ease the way toward final approval.
"This was one of the few areas where there was big money involved that you could hold over the Russians," said George Perkovich, an arms-control specialist and vice president of the Carnegie Endowment. "It's a handy stick, a handy thing to hold over the Russians."
Bush has an interest in taking the agreement all the way as well. His new Global Nuclear Energy Partnership envisions promoting civilian nuclear power around the world and eventually finding a way to reprocess spent fuel without the danger of leaving behind material that could be used for bombs. Until such technology is developed, Bush needs someplace to store the spent fuel from overseas, and Russia is the only volunteer.
"The Russians could make a lot of money importing foreign spent fuel, some of our allies would desperately like to be able to send their fuel to Russia, and maybe we could use the leverage to get other things done," such as "getting the Russians to be more forward-leaning on Iran," Bunn said.