Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Russians are coming

But it may not matter russia

According to World Nuclear News, the USA and Russia have signed a "landmark" deal on nuclear cooperation to facilitate trade and allow joint ventures between companies.

The deal would create the conditions for "massive development of nuclear power worldwide." It sounds like GNEP on steroids and that's just the kind of conflict laden political initiative by the Bush Administration make makes Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich) see red.

The White House said it will "provide a framework for potential commercial sales of civil nuclear commodities to Russia by US companies." The White House did not elaborate on potential sales in the other direction, but WNN reported that Russian commentators said the American market would open to Rosatom and AtomEnergoProm, the state-owned company which may soon to become the biggest nuclear corporation in the world.

You have to wonder if the Russians are really interested in selling or are just in town on a nuclear technology shopping trip. OK, try this. What utility in the U.S. would buy a Russian nuclear reactor? Consider that no reactors of Russian design have ever been submitted to the NRC for design certification and the Soviet Union has a difficult image to overcome with the legacy of Chernobyl.

Sergi Kiriyenko However, the diplomats soldiered on. At the signing ceremony this week representing the USA was its ambassador to Russia, William Burns, while Sergei Kiriyenko (left), director general of the Rosatom corporation, signed for Russia. He's Russia's top nuclear energy official. The Russians signed a similar agreement with Canada's AECL last year.

Described by both diplomats as a "priority"' for the countries" Presidents, George Bush and Vladimir Putin, said the civil nuclear cooperation deal is one part of a wider package of strategic cooperation. Putin and Bush declared a program of agreements in April called the US-Russia Strategic Framework Declaration. It also includes missile defense, counter terrorism commitments, and economic cooperation.

In terms of nuclear power, the framework mentioned joint actions to "promote the expansion of nuclear energy without the spread of sensitive fuel cycle technologies" which could be abused to make nuclear weapons. If you think this sounds like a page out of the GNEP playbook you'd be right.

Congress has the votes to veto the deal

The agreement must be ratified in the U.S. by Congress. It didn't take long for opposition to surface. In a press release May 8th two lawmakers called on President Bush to address key questions about Russian support for Iran

They said Russia's support for Iran's nuclear program and the Bush administration's failure to make the case for the GNEP program sets the new agreement as a nonstarter. There was a lot of high sounding congressional bluster in the rest of statement, but it appears the votes are there to stop the Russians from buying anything that fits in a nuclear reactor.

Reps. John D. Dingell , the Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupak, the Chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, said in a letter that last September, when the House of Representatives passed the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007 (H.R. 1400), it prohibited technology deals between the US and any country assisting Iran' nuclear and missile programs.

"The House has voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation that would prohibit U.S. nuclear cooperation with countries that support the current Iranian regime' pursuit of nuclear technologies and materials," said Stupak.

Unfortunately for the entrepreneurial Mr. Kiriyenko, he may have a long wait to see any benefits from the signing ceremony. What has Dingell and Stupak wound up like tops is that earlier this year, a committee investigation found that the US may be funding Russian institutes that are working on nuclear projects in Iran, including the Bushehr Reactor, said Dingell.

It also appears that, in some cases, Dingell said, Department of Energy' nonproliferation program officials were unaware of the nuclear activities of Russian institutes. This is, of course, the same Department of Energy that brought you GNEP which is why it gets a tarred and feathered in the same rhetorical broadside. Never underestimate the ability of a politician seize an opportunity for a second bite at the apple when there are political points to be made,

So what do Dingell and Stupak really want? When you get past the rhetoric this is what it looks like. First, they appear to want to send a message to the Russians to stop helping Iran's nuclear program. This outcome is unlikely. The Iranians are paying for their nuclear help from the Russians in hard currency.

Second, Dingell and Stupak are not thrilled about giving the Russians the ability to roll a shopping cart down the nuclear aisle in the U.S. picking up reactor components like they were bags of potato chips. There is no sense, using this logic, in giving the Russians a leg up to compete with U.S. nuclear firms in the global market since that is clearly what they plan to do.

Third, there is the the ever present possibility that the Russians would take the stuff they bought in the U.S. and turn around and sell it the the Iranians. Bad outcome, definitely.

These are all good reasons to ask why Bush signed the agreement in the first place?

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