Shadow Government

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At least one nuclear deal with Russia is in the clear

Yesterday, an agreement — originally negotiated under the Bush administration — allowing for civil nuclear cooperation between the United States and Russia passed its final milestone before taking effect.  Such agreements are required under section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act before any significant cooperation involving nuclear technology may take place, and are already in ...

560725_101210_Medvedev2.jpg
560725_101210_Medvedev2.jpg
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev attends the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-Russia summit on the sidelines of the 17th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Hanoi on October 30, 2010. Medvedev arrived in Vietnam for a visit that will see Russia sign a multi-billion-euro nuclear power plant deal with the former Soviet-era Communist ally. AFP PHOTO / Kham / POOL (Photo credit should read KHAM/AFP/Getty Images)

Yesterday, an agreement -- originally negotiated under the Bush administration -- allowing for civil nuclear cooperation between the United States and Russia passed its final milestone before taking effect.  Such agreements are required under section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act before any significant cooperation involving nuclear technology may take place, and are already in force with some 50 other nations and entities.  Given that the United States and Russia have two of the largest nuclear industries in the world, the absence of such an agreement was an anomaly. 

The agreement does not require any specific actions.  Rather it serves as a framework that will enable cooperation on projects established under later deals.  A recently concluded joint study by Harvard's Managing the Atom Project and Russia's Kurchatov Institute (in which I participated), concluded that promising areas for future work include:  commercial cooperation on new reactor designs, including factory-built reactors with high levels of inherent safety, security, and proliferation-resistance; establishing "cradle-to-grave" fuel services to address waste disposition and nuclear weapons proliferation issues associated with atomic energy; and, use by U.S. firms of Russia's more extensive base of experimental facilities.  None of these activities are guaranteed by the "123 Agreement," but none are possible without it.

Yesterday, an agreement — originally negotiated under the Bush administration — allowing for civil nuclear cooperation between the United States and Russia passed its final milestone before taking effect.  Such agreements are required under section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act before any significant cooperation involving nuclear technology may take place, and are already in force with some 50 other nations and entities.  Given that the United States and Russia have two of the largest nuclear industries in the world, the absence of such an agreement was an anomaly. 

The agreement does not require any specific actions.  Rather it serves as a framework that will enable cooperation on projects established under later deals.  A recently concluded joint study by Harvard’s Managing the Atom Project and Russia’s Kurchatov Institute (in which I participated), concluded that promising areas for future work include:  commercial cooperation on new reactor designs, including factory-built reactors with high levels of inherent safety, security, and proliferation-resistance; establishing “cradle-to-grave” fuel services to address waste disposition and nuclear weapons proliferation issues associated with atomic energy; and, use by U.S. firms of Russia’s more extensive base of experimental facilities.  None of these activities are guaranteed by the “123 Agreement,” but none are possible without it.

In the long run, the “123 Agreement” with Russia may prove to be even more significant than the far more controversial New START Treaty.  It focuses on future areas of cooperation, rather than on Cold War nuclear arsenals, which both nations were reducing with or without an agreement.  It can facilitate new approaches to energy production that will make nuclear power safer, more secure, and less susceptible to abuse by would-be nuclear weapons proliferators.  Finally, it is one of the few points of genuine intersection between the U.S. and Russian economies. 

Some have criticized the deal because of Russia’s nuclear proliferation track record.  There is no doubt that Russia’s proliferation record has not been good, but it has improved in recent years, perhaps in part because of the far larger opportunities offered by legitimate nuclear commerce that could otherwise be put at risk.  Indeed, the “123 Agreement” actually creates more leverage to stem proliferation, because valuable cooperation could be cut off, whereas prior to the Agreement, it simply was not possible. 

As leading nuclear states, Russia and the United States should be working together to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation, while addressing the world’s energy needs.  The new “123 Agreement” will help to advance these vital and common interests.

William Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs was most recently deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

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