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The Safety in Loaning Nuclear Fuel

Richard Weitz

The recent thwarted transatlantic terrorist attacks underscore the need to strengthen international defenses against catastrophic terrorism. At the July 2006 G8 summit in St. Petersburg, U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a global initiative to combat nuclear terrorism and opened negotiations on bilateral civil-nuclear-energy cooperation. These complementary steps toward enhancing global security deserve broad international support.

Despite their differences on other issues, Russia and the United States play a unique role in helping avert nuclear terrorism. In their February 2005 Bratislava summit declaration, Bush and Putin affirmed that their countries “bear a special responsibility for the security of nuclear weapons and fissile material.” Along with existing threat-reduction projects, their recently announced collaboration on nuclear energy and nuclear terrorism demonstrates substantial progress toward meeting this commitment.

For several years, Russia has sought to become a core participant in a new network of global nuclear-fuel-service providers. At the mid-August 2006 summit of the Eurasian Economic Community, Putin again proposed that Russia (and other states that already possess advanced civil nuclear technologies) sell uranium fuel at modest prices to countries lacking their own enrichment facilities—provided the recipients returned the fuel. The original suppliers would then store and reprocess the spent nuclear fuel under international oversight.

Although Taiwan, South Korea, and other countries have expressed interest in storing spent nuclear fuel in Russia, the provisions of their atomic-energy agreements with the United States forbid them from transferring U.S.-origin nuclear material elsewhere without prior American consent. U.S. law requires a separate Russian-American accord before such shipments may occur. Until recently, American concerns about Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation and Russian plans to reprocess the spent fuel into plutonium have blocked such an agreement. The need for enhanced multinational collaboration to counter nuclear proliferation, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and provide additional energy sources has appropriately led the U.S. administration to reassess its position.

Requiring the return of spent nuclear fuel to its original suppliers would advance global nuclear-nonproliferation goals by depriving recipient countries of opportunities to reprocess it and extract plutonium. Guaranteeing developing states the right to purchase and store fuel internationally at modest cost would make it unnecessary for them to develop national uranium-enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. Without such sensitive technologies, Iran and other countries would find it much harder to use a civilian nuclear-power program to acquire nuclear weapons. Any government that persisted in developing a costly indigenous nuclear-fuel cycle—despite assured access to international nuclear-fuel services—would raise the alarm that they were driven by military rather than economic motives.

Iran has thus far declined to participate in such a fuel-leasing program. For the past month, Iranian leaders have claimed they have been too distracted by the war in Lebanon to address the issue. They continue to insist on their right to develop their own indigenous fuel-cycle services—which would also conveniently allow Tehran to manufacture nuclear weapons. Even Russian policy makers express suspicion that their Iranian interlocutors are stringing them along while they advance their nuclear research.

Russia’s offer to provide uranium enrichment and spent-fuel disposal services to foreign countries could yield substantial nonproliferation benefits even without Iran’s participation. For example, it would remove fissile materials from places that have less experience than Russia with such dangerous materials. Unlike most developing countries, which account for over half of the new nuclear reactors under construction, Russia has been receiving extensive international nuclear-safety and security assistance for years.

The Russian government would earn an estimated $10-20 billion from supplying such fuel-cycle services. Congress should support the Russian-American nuclear accord if Moscow allocates some of this projected revenue to support nonproliferation projects. Russia must also limit its nuclear collaboration with problem states such as Iran.

A Russian-American civil-nuclear-energy accord would provide a core component of the administration’s planned Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. The GNEP aims to enhance multinational cooperation on many important nuclear-security issues, including developing more proliferation-resistant fuel cycles. Limiting the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies and materials remains the most effective strategy for reducing the dangers of nuclear proliferation and catastrophic terrorism.

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