Nuclear Weapons

Another Nuclear Trade Deal, This Time with Russia

05.20.08 | 8 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

Compared to all the excitement created by the US-Indian nuclear trade deal, the Russian equivalent, submitted last week, created barely a ripple [caution: big file to download]. While FAS strongly opposes the US-Indian nuclear trade agreement, the Russian case is much more complex.

There are reasons to oppose the Russian deal and reasons to support it. The calculation is further complicated because some of the reasons, in my opinion the primary reason, for opposing the deal are not because of specific problems with the deal, per se, but because the deal is a surrogate for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which is itself a breathtakingly bad idea.

Under the Atomic Energy Act, the president must submit to Congress the framework for trade before nuclear materials and technology can be shared with any particular country. The requirement is spelled out in Section 123 of the Act so these are often called 123 Agreements. The United States has them with many countries. Supposedly, draft agreements are submitted to Congress for 30 days of “consultation,” during which Congress can suggest changes, and then the final agreement is submitted. If the president has not exercised any waiver authority, then the Congress has 60 days to pass a resolution by both houses to block the agreement. If the Congress does nothing, the agreement goes into effect. [This 123 agreement, like other past agreements, is entirely different from the Congressional perspective from the Indian nuclear deal. In an earlier blog, I explained how, if the president does not invoke waivers, then the Congress has to specifically disapprove the deal or else it automatically goes through but if the president invoked certain waivers, then the Congress has to specifically approve the deal. Russia is a recognized nuclear weapons state, a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, signatory of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and founding member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty so there is no need for any waiver from the president.]

The resolution to block the agreement is a normal piece of legislation so, like any other bill, is subject to veto. Therefore, if the president really wants the agreement, it can only be blocked by a two thirds majority of both houses. In other words, at this stage, the Congress has very little leverage; nevertheless, as Carah Ong writes, there is significant opposition within the Congress. (Note that in practice the 30 day and 60 day periods are combined. Consulting with Congress is not the current administration’s forte so the agreement is just offered up, take-it-or-leave-it, to be acted on within 90 days.)

Congress is getting exercised about the Russian 123 agreement primarily because of Russia’s involvement with the Iranian nuclear program, primarily their work on the reactor at Bushier. Congressman Markey has drafted a resolution of disapproval of the deal. The Senate is considering S.970, The Iran Counter-proliferation Act, which would make impossible the type of cooperation with Russia envisioned by the 123 Agreement.

I believe that the Russians have, overall, been responsible in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program and have come up with some innovative ideas. They suggested that the Iranians build and operate their uranium gas-centrifuge enrichment plant on Russian soil, and they have insisted on leasing, rather than selling, to Iran the fuel rods for Bushier, including the future return to Russia of the plutonium-laced spent fuel rods. Cooperation on Bushier has been suspended at certain points to apply pressure on Iran to comply with IAEA demands. Russia’s overall activities in Iran have been in compliance with IAEA conditions. Russia’s work to complete the Bushier reactor and supply it with fuel is completely separate from the Iranian gas centrifuge program, which almost everyone outside Iran believes is designed to be a part of a covert or at least latent nuclear weapon production capability. Russia certainly has not automatically fully supported every US goal with respect to Iran but they, like the British and French, have provided a communications path and have negotiated with Iran in support of goals that are broadly supported by the international community. There is no question that we, meaning not just the United States but the world, need to deal with Iran to stop their nuclear weapons program. There are bold initiatives that the United States could lead. The main problem with Iran is not Russia. There may be reasons to oppose the Russian 123 agreement but Iran is not one.

There are much better arguments than Iran for opposing the agreement. I am very concerned about the administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP. This is an ill-conceived, proliferation-prone, premature, economically unjustified, and ecologically disastrous plan to reprocess plutonium from civilian nuclear reactors that, if carried through, could easily prove to be the greatest technological debacle in the nation’s history. The Russians are big proponents of reprocessing and the 123 agreement clearly is intended to pave the way for future cooperation on reprocessing. The agreement states that the parties will not just allow but “shall facilitate” nuclear trade. The agreement allows the transfer of nuclear technology, including reprocessing technology and the transfer of spent fuel and foresees the reprocessing of shipped nuclear waste.

Article 3 paragraph 2 states: “The parties shall facilitate trade in…nuclear material…as well as services pertaining to the nuclear fuel cycle…” The “services” could include fuel fabrication and plutonium reprocessing and Article 8 specifically allows trade in plutonium and, in addition, specifically recognizes that plutonium might be produced from materials traded under the agreement. Article 9, however, goes on to state that nuclear materials traded under the agreement can be altered “in form or content” only with permission of the parties. That seems to refer to reprocessing. So the agreement recognizes reprocessing of each other’s nuclear waste as a possible allowed activity but further discussion would be needed to actually carry it out. As I understand the requirement, that follow-on agreement would not need further Congressional approval.

Thus, the deal seems in large part to be an effort to support GNEP. This is the latest in a series. The Department of Energy has made a great show each time some country has signed onto GNEP, proclaiming that this is yet another international endorsement of the program, not pointing out that foreign governments are not being asked to spend a nickel, invest in research, or in any way commit resources. This is a well-worn political gambit: internationalize a shaky program so that supporters can later claim that canceling the program would be an embarrassment internationally, the United States must stick by its commitments, and so on. If you want to know what the administration’s real priorities are, ignore what it says and look at where it spends its money. Compare the meager funds and anemic efforts going to support an international uranium fuel bank to the hundreds of millions it is asking for to prematurely rush into building a reprocessing plant.

Even if backdoor support for GNEP were the primary motivation for the Russian agreement, I do not think that it is worthwhile to spend a lot of effort fighting the agreement. It would be far more productive to invest that effort fighting GNEP directly. Clearly, if the Russian 123 agreement fails to go through, GNEP will still be a high priority of the administration. Killing this agreement will do little or nothing to slow GNEP.

There are other, second-order reasons to object to the agreement, mostly for what it fails to do rather than what it does. This could have been an opportunity to increase openness in the Russian plutonium economy, to more cleanly separate Russian military and civilian plutonium inventories, to expand the number of both Russian and American civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards, and to enhance opportunities for a verifiable Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. It does none of these things. The agreement is an opportunity lost but that is not a strong reason to oppose it.

There are some reasons to support the agreement. The Russians think the agreement is important and if the Congress does not approve the agreement, it is a diplomatic slap in the face to Russia. (Some might argue that Russia is becoming so thuggish that it needs an occasional slap; I think we should still work to maintain civil relations with Russia.) Russia is still in a good position to be very helpful with Iran and I hope that in the next administration we could begin talking to the Russians about major reductions in nuclear weapons and ambitious non-proliferation efforts. Of course, this is yet another example of where the administration has created a fait accompli and, with no prior consultation, expected the Congress to acquiesce. This case is not as egregious as the on-going train wreck that is the Indian deal but it is an unfortunate way of doing business.

The agreement allows some forms of research that may be useful. In my analysis of the GNEP program, I am careful to point out that the physics works exactly as advertised. The problem is with the engineer and the economics. GNEP is, literally, several decades premature. But I am a technological optimist so I am willing to allow the possibility that all this will some day make great sense, maybe in the year 2070. Many in Congress, even if they oppose reprocessing, want to support research. Reprocessing, a bad idea now under any circumstance, is totally insane without the fast neutron reactors needed to burn the transuranic fuel. So part of any research program would have to be fast reactors. No problem, the DOE tells us, we will build fast neutron reactors for research purposes. Dick Garwin and others respond: not so fast, the Russians already have fast neutron reactors. For just a few percent of the cost of building our own reactor, we could collaborate with the Russians to use their reactors to test new fuels and new materials in a fast neutron environment. This agreement would allow for that type of collaboration, which might undercut arguments for building a new fast reactor in the United States, which would be an expensive mistake.

I cannot say I support the Russian 123 agreement but I think opposition is barking up the wrong tree. If we are concerned about Iran, we should address the Iran problem directly, not oppose the 123 as a surrogate. Those who oppose GNEP should invest their energies in fighting GNEP directly, not the 123 as a surrogate for GNEP. We have to also keep in mind that the debate is probably moot since, even with strong opposition in Congress, the chance of getting a veto-proof majority is remote. The deal will most likely go through but GNEP requires specific positive votes from Congress or the money doesn’t appear and fighting GNEP has shown good results in the past; Congress has cut the administration’s past requests by more than half. I shall continue to focus my efforts there.