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Sunday, July 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S., Russia to deal over nukes

Washington Post

WASHINGTON — President Bush has decided to permit extensive U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia for the first time, reversing decades of bipartisan policy in a move that would be worth billions of dollars to Moscow but could provoke an uproar in Congress.

Bush resisted such a move for years, insisting that Russia first stop building a nuclear power station for Iran on the Persian Gulf. But U.S. officials have shifted their view of Russia's collaboration with Iran and concluded that President Vladimir Putin has become a more constructive partner in trying to pressure Tehran to give up any aspirations for nuclear weapons.

"We have made clear to Russia that for an agreement on peaceful nuke cooperation to go forward, we will need active cooperation in blocking Iran's attempts to obtain nuclear weapons," Peter Watkins, a White House spokesman, said Saturday.

The president plans to formally announce his decision at a meeting with Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Saturday before the annual summit of leaders from the Group of Eight major nations. The statement to be released by the two presidents would agree to start negotiations for the formal agreement required under U.S. law before the United States can engage in civilian nuclear cooperation.

In the administration's view, both sides would benefit. A nuclear cooperation agreement would clear the way for Russia to import and store thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel from U.S.-supplied reactors around the world, a lucrative business so far blocked by Washington. It could be used as an incentive to win more Russian cooperation on Iran. And it would be critical to Bush's plan to spread civilian nuclear energy to power-hungry countries because Russia would provide a place to send the used radioactive material.

At the same time, it could draw significant opposition from across the ideological spectrum, according to analysts who follow the issue. Critics wary of Putin's authoritarian course view it as rewarding Russia even though Moscow refuses to support sanctions against Iran. Others fearful of Russia's record of handling nuclear material see it as a reckless move that endangers the environment.

"You will have all the anti-Russian right against it, you will have all the anti-nuclear left against it, and you will have the Russian democracy center concerned about it too," said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear specialist at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Since Russia is already a nuclear state, such an agreement, once drafted, presumably would conform to the Atomic Energy Act and therefore would not require congressional approval. Congress could reject it only with majority votes by both houses within 90 legislative days.

Some specialists said Bush's decision marks a milestone in U.S.-Russian relations, despite tension over Moscow's retreat from democracy and pressure on neighbors. "It signals that there's a sea change in the attitude toward Russia, that they're someone we can try to work with on Iran," said Rose Gottemoeller, a former Energy Department official in the Clinton administration who now directs the Carnegie Moscow Center.

But others said the deal seems one-sided. "Just what exactly are we getting? That's the real mystery," said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Until now, he noted, the United States has insisted on specific actions by Russia to prevent Iran from developing bombs. "We're not getting any of that. We're getting an opportunity to give them money."

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Environmentalists have denounced Russia's plans to transform itself into the world's nuclear dump. The country has a history of nuclear accidents and contamination. Its transportation network is antiquated and inadequate for moving vast quantities of radioactive material, critics say. And the country, they add, has not fully secured the nuclear facilities it already has against theft or accidents.

The United States has civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with the European atomic energy agency, along with China, Japan, Taiwan and 20 other countries. Bush recently sealed an agreement with India, which does require congressional approval because of that nation's unsanctioned weapons program.

Russia has sought such an agreement with the United States since the 1990s. Estimating that it could make as much as $20 billion, Russia enacted a law in 2001 permitting the import, temporary storage and reprocessing of foreign nuclear fuel, despite 90 percent opposition in public opinion polls.

But the plan went nowhere. The United States controls spent fuel from nuclear material it provides, even in foreign countries, and Bunn estimates that as much as 95 percent of the potential world market for Russia was under U.S. jurisdiction. Without a cooperation agreement, none of the material could be sent to Russia, even though allies such as South Korea and Taiwan are eager to ship spent fuel there.

Like President Clinton before him, Bush refused to consider it as long as Russia was helping Iran with its nuclear program.

The concern over the nuclear reactor under construction at Boushehr, however, has faded. Russia agreed to provide all fuel to the facility and take it back once used, meaning it could not be turned into material for nuclear bombs. U.S. officials who once suspected that Russian scientists were secretly behind Iran's weapons program learned that critical assistance to Tehran came from Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.

The 2002 disclosure that Iran had secret nuclear sites separate from Boushehr shocked the U.S. and Russian governments and seemed to harden Putin's stance toward Iran. He eventually agreed to refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council and signed on to a package of incentives and penalties recently sent to Tehran. But at the same time, he has consistently opposed economic sanctions, military action or tougher diplomatic language.

Opening negotiations for a formal nuclear cooperation agreement could be used as a lever to move Putin further. Talks will inevitably take months, and the review in Congress will extend the process. If during that time Putin resists stronger measures against Iran, analysts said, the deal could unravel or critics on Capitol Hill could try to muster enough opposition to block it. If Putin proves cooperative on Iran, they said, it could ease the way toward final approval.

White House spokesman Peter Watkins was quoted by The New York Times.

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