Bush pushing civilian nuke cooperation with Russia in hopes of kicking off international nuclear fuel bank

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Publish date: April 30, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

US President George Bush hopes to send a pact on civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia to US Congress in the next month, but resistance to the bill would be strong, according to congressional aides, with debate centering mostly on Russia’s collaboration with Iran to build a nuclear reactor there.

Bush has been urging more civilian nuclear technology swaps between Russia and the United State for the past two years in the hopes that the cooperation would give the US some say-so over an international uranium fuel bank that is to be built in Russia. The US also wants to open channels about nuclear reactor construction.

Concerns over Iran, which Washington accuses of trying to build an nuclear bomb, however, could scuttle the administration’s hopes that the civilian nuke deal would take effect by the time Bush leaves office next January.

The Bush administration says the nuclear deal with Russia could help solve the Iran problem by clearing the way for Washington to cooperate with Russia’s offer to host an international uranium enrichment centre, slated for construction in Angarsk, near Irkutsk, that would supply nuclear fuel to countries like Iran.

Russian President Vladimir Putin – who is banking on the construction of the uranium bank in Russia – says the proposed uranium enrichment centre would discourage Iran and other countries from developing nuclear fuel cycle facilities that could be used for covert weapons programs.

"We can’t isolate ourselves from Russia and then expect that these are the proposals that are going to be the solution to the Iranian nuclear programme," a senior State Department official speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters.

"If there is an interest in the US in investing in this consortium that Russia is establishing, getting US industry involved in that whole international enrichment center, this (nuclear) agreement would be a useful baseline for that sort of cooperation," the official said.

Easy as 123?
A 123 agreement, so-called because it falls under section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act, is required before countries can cooperate on nuclear materials, such as storing spent fuel, or work together on advanced nuclear reactor programmes.

At a summit this month in Sochi, Russia, Bush and Putin agreed to sign a nuclear cooperation deal "in the near future." The Bush administration is now going through the US interagency process leading to the president’s signature.

Bush would have to send the deal to Congress "in the next month or so" to give lawmakers time to consider it before they adjourn this year, the senior State Department official said.

"If we’re to get it done, it will have to be soon," the official said.

Agreement could languish in limbo
Once the agreement is sent to lawmakers, it would go into force if Congress did not pass a disapproval resolution within 90 legislative days.

But the House of Representatives is already on record as saying the United States should shun civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia because of Moscow’s aid in building Iran’s plant at Bushehr – which is slated to go online this year – and supplying it with fuel. Many of these lawmakers have penned a bill to this effect that is also pending in the US senate.

Bush may then simply sign the bill and avoid sending it to congress while he is in office, leaving it to the next president to send to congress for consideration.

Bush stance on Russian fuel to Iran softening

The Bush administration initially urged Moscow not to send nuclear fuel to Tehran. But Bush has more recently taken the position that such a move shows Iran that Russia could be a dependable fuel supplier so that Tehran has no need to enrich uranium itself – with all the weapons proliferation risk, which has had western nations on edge.

Critics say Putin’s Russia has not proven itself a trustworthy partner for a nuclear cooperation pact with Washington, and suspect the agreement is a lame duck attempt at legacy-building by a White House in its last few months in office.