The “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations has borne significant fruit for U.S. interests since it was announced 18 months ago. These dividends range from signing the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and agreeing to jointly eliminate some 70 tons of weapons-grade plutonium in April, to securing concrete Russian support for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. While most of these accomplishments deal with shared security interests, our two countries should find other ways to cooperate outside the security realm.
Cooperation on peaceful nuclear energy is one such opportunity. Both countries have invested substantially in civilian nuclear research and development, and both share basic interests in capitalizing on the global “nuclear energy renaissance” by developing proliferation-resistant reactor technologies, increasing environmental safety, and making nuclear energy more economically competitive. By combining each side’s comparative advantages, the United States and Russia can each profit handsomely, while illustrating the power of innovation to transform Cold War competition into free-market competitiveness.
Enabling this type of cooperation, however, requires support from Washington. Specifically, Congress must endorse an agreement signed by the two countries that meets criteria listed in Section 123.a of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954. This type of “123 Agreement”—which the United States has signed with Australia, South Korea, and 19 other states—allows U.S. companies to share nuclear technology and materials with foreign counterparts, carry out joint research and development activities, and bid jointly on civil nuclear projects.
In May, President Obama submitted the proposed text of the U.S.-Russian Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement to Congress. The 123 Agreement will likely go into effect in November, unless Congress enacts a joint resolution of disapproval, which requires majority votes in both chambers. Although two draft resolutions of disapproval have been introduced, neither has attracted more than a handful of cosponsors.
Critics of the agreement allege that Russia may share the fruits of nuclear cooperation with its business partners in the Middle East, including potentially Iran and Syria, who could use that knowledge to advance their own nuclear programs. But Russia’s support for the recent Security Council sanctions on Iran, and its refusal to sell Tehran sophisticated air defenses, should blunt these critiques.
Of course, a new crisis in U.S.-Russian relations could still derail the agreement. Though the Bush administration signed the deal and submitted it to Congress in May 2008, the White House withdrew it that August after the Russia-Georgia war erupted. Since then, the “reset”—and an array of high-level working groups established under the auspices of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission—have re-energized bilateral cooperation and given both sides incentives to prevent future disagreements from freezing relations. Focusing on concrete cooperation in technical areas, such as civilian nuclear cooperation, will help build on this momentum and endow the bilateral relationship with long-term stability.
When it comes to civil nuclear cooperation, the United States and Russia each bring unique and complementary assets to the table. Russia is the world’s largest supplier of uranium for nuclear power plants, and has pioneered both secure storage of spent fuel and so-called “fast breeder” reactor technologies that produce no weapons-usable nuclear waste. Fortunately, Russia seeks to expand fuel sales to the United States, which is currently capable of producing less than one-fifth of its domestic fuel needs, as well as provide secure permanent storage for United States spent fuel, something no U.S. state has been willing to do.
The Russian nuclear industry is also interested in partnering with U.S. firms like GE and Westinghouse on bids for third-country contracts and, in the past year and a half, eight deals have been signed between U.S. and Russian firms anticipating future cooperation. The United States expressed its willingness to work with Russia when it initiated the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) in 2006, which identified Russia as a nuclear supplier “partner” state that can help provide expanded access to nuclear power in an efficient, environmentally safe, and proliferation-proof manner.
Drawing on shared interests and opportunities like these, nuclear energy has strong prospects to emerge as one of the main areas of U.S.-Russian cooperation post-reset. It is also exactly what Presidents Obama and Medvedev called for when they created the Bilateral Presidential Commission and its nuclear energy working group.
But such cooperation will only be possible if the 123 Agreement takes effect. Rather than cast about for excuses to block the deal, Congress should recognize that the best way to ensure Russia plays a constructive role in the civil nuclear renaissance and non-proliferation is to open the door to partnership with the United States. Handled responsibly, civil nuclear cooperation will fuel economic growth, enhance security, and cement the gains of the U.S.-Russia reset. That would serve both countries well.