U.S., Russia to discuss storage of nuclear waste

July 09, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON --The Bush administration said yesterday that it would open negotiations with Russia on a long-discussed civilian nuclear agreement that would pave the way for Russia to become one of the world's largest repositories of spent nuclear fuel.

President Vladimir V. Putin has been looking to expand the country's role in the multibillion-dollar nuclear power business. The United States has traditionally opposed any such arrangement, in part because of concerns about the safety of Russian nuclear facilities, and because the country has helped Iran build its first major nuclear reactor.

But administration officials said that once Bush endorsed Putin's proposal last year for Iran to conduct uranium enrichment inside Russia - rather than in Iran, where the administration fears it would be diverted to weapons programs - it made little sense to bar ordinary civilian nuclear exchanges with Russia.

The Washington Post reported the shift in the Bush administration yesterday. Sergei G. Novikov, a spokesman for Russia's Atomic Energy Agency, said in a telephone interview that Russia and the United States had been talking about the subject in recent months.

He added that he did not expect that an agreement would be signed during the Group of 8 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, next weekend, but rather that Bush and Putin might issue a vaguely worded statement on increased nuclear cooperation, and then instruct their governments to work on an agreement that might lift the current restrictions. The United States has similar deals with a variety of nations, including China.

If such a statement is issued, Novikov said, negotiations on the details would likely take at least several months. "I would rather not talk about any expectations, so as not to experience any frustration should they not come true," he said.

A spokesman for Putin declined to comment. The White House had no immediate comment, but officials from two agencies that have been involved in the decision confirmed that negotiations for an accord with Russia will proceed.

An official who has been briefed on the administration plan, but who would not speak on the record because the program has not yet been announced, said that "this is really an announcement of negotiations to come."

For Bush, an accord could help solve two problems: where to send a growing stockpile of nuclear waste from nuclear fuel used in the United States, and how to keep Russia on board in pressuring Iran to give up its uranium enrichment programs.

Under U.S. law, the United States retains control over nuclear fuel, and its waste products, that originated in the United States. As a result it has barred South Korea, Taiwan and other states that bought American fuel from transferring it to Russia, which changed its laws several years ago to allow the country to enter the business of storing nuclear waste.

But negotiations would also help provide Putin with an economic incentive for giving up nuclear aid to Iran, which has long been one of the Bush administration's objectives. On Friday, at a news conference in Chicago, Bush alluded to the difficulty in persuading Russia and China to join in sanctions against Iran or North Korea.

"You know, some nations are more comfortable with sanctions than other nations, and part of the issue we face in some of these countries is that they've got economic interests," Bush said. "Now, part of our objective is to make sure that national security interests, security of the world interests trump economic interests."

In two previous trips to St. Petersburg, Bush tried to persuade Putin to give up a lucrative contract to supply the reactors to Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant. But Russia resisted, and eventually Bush accepted a deal in which any nuclear fuel Russia sells to Iran will have to be returned to Russia after use, so that the waste cannot be reprocessed into weapons-grade plutonium.

Robert J. Einhorn, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation under Clinton and briefly Bush, said the deal would have benefits beyond Iran - especially since the president is pushing for the construction of more nuclear power plants at home and for more cooperation on sharing civilian nuclear energy supplies abroad.

Though there are a handful of plans to build reactors in the United States, none have been started here since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. The Russians have been far more active.

Congress would have the right to review any agreement. But since the administration just concluded an accord with India, which requires a more intensive nuclear review, administration officials said they thought Russia would win approval. "We do this with China," one official said, "and they are not paragons of democracy, either."

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