Russia’s other power play

Iran’s Bushehr power plant – AFP/Getty Images Russia has been in the news a lot lately following President Vladimir Putin’s big trip to Iran and what look suspiciously like efforts to stay in power after his term expires. But without much media fanfare, the Russians have been quietly working on an initiative that could do ...

598374_071102_bushehr_05.jpg
598374_071102_bushehr_05.jpg

Iran's Bushehr power plant - AFP/Getty Images

Russia has been in the news a lot lately following President Vladimir Putin's big trip to Iran and what look suspiciously like efforts to stay in power after his term expires. But without much media fanfare, the Russians have been quietly working on an initiative that could do a world of good.

Over the past few years, Russia has been collaborating with the United States and other supplier nations to limit the spread of sensitive enrichment technologies that can be used to produce fuel for civilian uses as well as for nuclear weapons. Cooperation here is a matter of necessity: Efforts to halt the spread of atomic weapons simply won't get very far without Russia, one of the world's most important suppliers of nuclear technology and fuel for energy production.

Iran’s Bushehr power plant – AFP/Getty Images

Russia has been in the news a lot lately following President Vladimir Putin’s big trip to Iran and what look suspiciously like efforts to stay in power after his term expires. But without much media fanfare, the Russians have been quietly working on an initiative that could do a world of good.

Over the past few years, Russia has been collaborating with the United States and other supplier nations to limit the spread of sensitive enrichment technologies that can be used to produce fuel for civilian uses as well as for nuclear weapons. Cooperation here is a matter of necessity: Efforts to halt the spread of atomic weapons simply won’t get very far without Russia, one of the world’s most important suppliers of nuclear technology and fuel for energy production.

The Russians are about to launch an “international fuel enrichment center” in Angarsk, a city in eastern Siberia. The precise details of the arrangement are still unclear, but it appears as if all countries will be able to participate in the center “without any political preconditions,” according to Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations. In return, it was initially believed that participating states would receive assured access to nuclear fuel from Angarsk. However, a recent report by Oxford Analytica merely noted that participating countries would “share in profits” from the facility — a vague formulation that leaves open many questions about the nature of the agreement.

Assured access to fuel, though, is the main principle behind each of the handful of “multilateralization” proposals that have been put forth for the nuclear fuel cycle. Certain states, such as Iran, argue that they need to develop their own fuel-cycle capabilities (i.e. centrifuge enrichment plants) to guard against disruptions in the international market for nuclear fuel. Even though the market has never seen a notable disruption, this argument is valid to a certain degree; for a state that is heavily reliant on nuclear power, a disruption would be crippling, and just because market disruptions haven’t happened doesn’t mean they won’t. Development of enrichment facilities, moreover, is allowed under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

The current fuel-cycle countries hope that multilateral initiatives such as the center in Angarsk will reduce incentives for more states to build enrichment capabilities. They could also help reveal Iran’s true intentions — why refuse to participate in the Angarsk center if their only concern is reliable access to fuel? With a possible renaissance for nuclear power on the horizon, initiatives like Angarsk are promising attempts to slow proliferation of dangerous technology without eviscerating the NPT.

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