Russia, US sign nuclear agreement

May 6, 2008 7:27:01 AM PDT
Russian and U.S. officials signed a key agreement on civilian nuclear power Tuesday that could give Washington access to Russian technology and potentially hand Moscow lucrative deals on storing spent fuel. The deal, signed on the eve of Dmitry Medvedev's inauguration as president, signals a reversal in policy for the U.S. administration on cooperating with Russia on nuclear issues. Cooperation had cooled in recent years, mainly due to disagreements over how to handle Iran's perceived nuclear threat.

"The U.S. and Russia were once nuclear rivals," U.S. Ambassador William Burns said after a signing ceremony. "Today, we are nuclear partners with unique capabilities and unique responsibilities for global nuclear leadership."

The deal - signed by Burns and Russian atomic energy chief Sergei Kiriyenko - will give the U.S. access to Russian state-of-the art nuclear technology.

That would be important for the Washington, where nuclear development was virtually dormant in the wake of a 1979 reactor accident at Three Mile Island in the U.S. and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear explosion in the Soviet Union, experts say.

The U.S. is especially interested in developments in areas including fast-neutron reactors and recycling nuclear fuel.

The deal could also help Russia in its efforts to establish an international nuclear fuel storage facility by importing and storing spent fuel. It cannot achieve that goal without signing the deal, since the U.S. controls the vast majority of the world's nuclear fuel.

The fuel storage plans have caused outrage among environmentalists and ordinary Russians, who fear that such a project would turn the country into the world's nuclear dump. Russian officials would have to overcome those objections to go ahead with the plans.

Kiriyenko, meanwhile, insisted that the deal does not mean Russia would be importing nuclear fuel: "Russia is not importing and will not import nuclear fuel," he said.

Work on the agreement got under way after outgoing President Vladimir Putin and U.S. counterpart George W. Bush pledged to increase cooperation in the field at the Group of 8 summit in St. Petersburg in 2006.

The U.S. administration's willingness to reverse course and work with Russia appears to reflect the U.S. view that Moscow is now a partner in the effort to persuade Tehran to abandon nuclear weapons ambitions, rather than a hindrance to it.

"The Bush administration is giving a green light on nuclear cooperation with Moscow," said Rose Gottemoeller, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"This is a nod to the long and friendly relations between the Bush and the Putin administration and it sets the stage for some successful nuclear cooperation with the new administrations," in the Kremlin and the White House," she said.

The U.S. has similar agreements with other major economic powers, including China.