Russia wants to store world’s nuclear reactor waste; Bush wants to help | VailDaily.com
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Russia wants to store world’s nuclear reactor waste; Bush wants to help

WASHINGTON – Russian President Vladimir Putin is maneuvering to take the nuclear waste the rest of the world shuns, hoping for a financial bonanza – and President Bush, in a reversal of U.S. policy, is offering to help.The two countries will announce as part of the upcoming G-8 summit that they will begin negotiations on a civilian nuclear agreement that would clear the way for Putin to achieve one of his top energy goals: expanding his country’s power reactors and using Russia’s vast territory as a storehouse for the world’s used reactor fuel.A majority of the spent reactor fuel now at power plants – especially in such countries as South Korea, Japan and Taiwan – came from the United States and can’t be shipped anywhere without U.S. approval.The United States has civilian nuclear agreements with nearly two dozen countries, including China, but it has opposed negotiating one with Russia, mainly because Russia has been helping Iran develop its nuclear energy program.While U.S. officials have emphasized the desire to increase cooperation with Russia on civilian nuclear matters, some major hurdles must be overcome before an agreement can be reached, including assurances that any U.S.-origin waste that would go to Russia will be secure and safe.”There would have to be all kinds of technical details and safeguards worked out,” said Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, adding, “It will take months to do.” Others say it could take years and may find strong opposition in Congress, which does not have to approve a deal, but can veto it.U.S. officials believe Putin wants the civilian nuclear agreement so much that it gives the administration leverage to get more cooperation from Russia to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”The Russians can make billions of dollars (from accepting foreign reactor waste) but only with U.S. OK. And that gives the United States a lot of leverage,” says Matthew Bunn, a leading nuclear proliferation watchdog who heads the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard University.As for the United States, the administration sees such cooperation with Russia as essential for its broader vision on the expansion of nuclear energy worldwide. There are now 442 nuclear power plants in 32 countries including the U.S. and Russia, and the desire for more reactors is growing, especially in Asia.Earlier this year, the White House unveiled a long-range plan to renew reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel as part of an international program in which a limited number of countries – including the U.S. and Russia – would provide uranium fuel to other countries and then retrieve the used reactor fuel for reprocessing.That would allow countries to have reactors to produce electricity, but not to pursue nuclear fuel enrichment, which – as has been the concern with Iran – poses the risks that uranium might be enriched to a point where it can be used in a weapon.A civilian nuclear agreement would help get Russian participation in the Global Nuclear Energy Project and development of the next generation of nuclear reactors: high-speed neutron reactors that are essential in nuclear fuel reprocessing.Putin has made clear his determination to expand Russian civilian nuclear programs. Like Bush, he envisions an international program to provide uranium fuel and a way to dispose of spent reactor waste.In 2001, Putin signed laws that clear the way for importing spent fuel from foreign reactors, despite strong opposition from many Russians.”In poll after poll, 90 percent of the Russian population objected to Russia becoming essentially a repository for spent nuclear waste,” says Sarah Mendelson, a senior fellow in the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank.That could pose a sticky problem for the administration, she suggested, if the U.S. is perceived as conspiring with the Russian government against the will of most of its citizens.But many scholars of Russia and of global nuclear issues maintain that increased cooperation on civilian nuclear issues is likely to be beneficial to both countries.”There are a lot of potential benefits, but there are at the same time potential risks,” said Bunn, the Harvard scholar who specializes in nuclear proliferation issues.While generally supporting the U.S. initiative with Russia, Bunn said, “The negotiations won’t be quick” as the United States seeks assurances from Russia on a broad range of issues from assuring spent fuel is kept secure to gaining some say in how the revenue from waste shipments – estimated by some to be as much as $20 billion – are spent by the Russians.While no U.S. reactor waste is likely to go to Russia, the United States is expected to press Russia to funnel a significant portion of the money it gets from foreign shipments to improving security not only at civilian waste facilities, but also defense sites where nuclear material is kept.Robert Einhorn, a senior CSIS adviser and former assistant secretary of state, said much of the impact of increased U.S.-Russia cooperation on civilian nuclear programs will be positive “especially if Russia would devote some of the revenues from spent fuel storage to nuclear security and other threat reduction steps.””Having material safely stored is a nonproliferation benefit,” said Einhorn.Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., co-chair of the House Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation, isn’t convinced.”Our plan to deal with the global nuclear waste problem should not be turned into a nuclear waste marketplace in a country with such a poor record of securing their own nuclear material,” said Markey. “That is just plain naive.”—On the Net:International Atomic Energy Agency: http://www.iaea.org/Energy Department’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership: http://www.gnep.energy.gov/


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