MOSCOW AND WASHINGTON — Against a backdrop of global efforts to address peacefully the concerns raised by Iran's nuclear power program, the US and Russia are proposing an international "partnership" for controlling the flow of weapons-grade uranium to those who might harbor military ambitions.
The plan, announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week and included in President Bush's budget sent to Congress Monday, would provide energy-starved countries with the fuel they need for generating nuclear power, while taking back the dangerous waste created in its production.
But some experts and critics say the proposal raises many questions for Congress to address, and the science behind the idea of breaking down spent fuels is unproven and dangerous. In any case, they add, the initiative would do little to make the world safer in the case of proliferating nuclear power generation.
In its description of the "Global Nuclear Partnership," the Department of Energy says the fuel supply and handling aspect of the proposal would be addressed "once technologies are proven" for nuclear plant reprocessing.
"What seems rather fanciful about this project is that the fuel-supply aspect appears contingent on proving some highly advanced technology," says Daryl Kimball, executive director the Arms Control Association in Washington. "They're using this as a way to sell reprocessing technology rather than as a way to solve the problem of fuel supply, and that's troubling."
Other experts worry the proposal may simply be using heightened concerns over nuclear security and weapons of mass destruction as a way to get the US back into uranium-processing research - research the US gave up decades ago as uneconomical and dangerous.
"If the idea is to promote a sense of security at the same time that the development of large reactors to a long list of countries is promoted, then it's very misguided," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. "They're trying to sell this as a nonproliferation initiative, but we shouldn't be so quick to cede that point."
The project, as described by President Putin, would confine the vulnerable stages of the nuclear fuel cycle - uranium enrichment and radioactive waste disposal - to a few specialized centers located in Russia, the US, and perhaps other countries such as France. That would plug a loophole in the current nuclear nonproliferation regime, allowing countries to enrich uranium on their own for "peaceful" purposes, which is the nub of the world community's current worries about Iran's intentions.
A significant problem with the proposal, according to nuclear experts in the US, is that the technology required for the plan to work remains unproven.
The idea of recycling or reprocessing spent nuclear fuel has been around since the Ford administration, but was put on hold then and under the subsequent Carter administration.
"The US decided three decades ago that [reprocessing] was not economical and not helpful for nonproliferation," says Mr. Kimball. "This would constitute the US giving up the long-term policy of disavowing reprocessing technology."
Under the plan, a version of which has already been offered by Russia to Iran, access to civilian reactor technology would be expanded for those countries willing to comply with the rules.
"We propose setting up a network of nuclear cycle centers for enriching uranium, and ensuring equal access for all who desire to share in the work of developing nuclear technology," Mr. Putin said in his annual news conference. "We're talking about access without discrimination.... Russia is an obvious partner for resolving tasks of this kind, given the country's advanced nuclear power engineering, its scientific base, skilled personnel, and developed nuclear infrastructure," he said.
At a Saturday meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Russia voted with much of the world community to report Iran's suspected nuclear misconduct to the UN Security Council, but the resolution provided that any action be postponed for at least a month. Negotiations over Moscow's offer to transfer Iran's uranium enrichment to Russian facilities are set to resume on Feb. 16.
Experts say that if Tehran agrees to the plan, it could end the current crisis and improve chances for a broader tightening of the existing nonproliferation regime, which has been badly strained by nuclear breakouts by Pakistan, India and North Korea in recent years. "Russia is hoping to to turn this situation from confrontation to compromise, and thus maintain its good relations with both the West and Iran," says Nikolai Kozyrev, an expert at the official Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, which trains Russian diplomats. "A great deal is at stake."
Russia has major economic interests, especially in the nuclear sphere, that would be threatened by any international sanctions regime or military action against Iran. The state-owned AtomStroiExport Co. is building an $800 million, 1,000-megawatt light reactor power station at Bushehr in southern Iran, which the Russians insist is a purely civilian project under legal supervision by the IAEA.
"Iran is a major business partner, a good ally, and a big buyer of our nuclear equipment," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.
"In fact, Iran's purchases are one of the only things keeping Russia's nuclear industry afloat. Russia's policy establishment will face a serious dilemma if the current crisis with Iran worsens: Should we side with the West, or with Iran? I'm afraid the answer of many in Russia's elite would be to take Iran's side. In that case, our relations with the West - which are already under strain - could slide into a new cold war."
Experts say success with Iran will be crucial if the international community is to develop the means to head-off other countries that might want to develop nuclear weapons in future. The question becomes especially acute in a world of energy shortages, where clean and reliable nuclear power is starting to look like an attractive alternative to costly fossil fuels.
"The time of skepticism about nuclear energy - the Chernobyl syndrome - is over, and in coming decades we will probably see a renaissance of nuclear energy around the world," says Anton Khlopkov, deputy director of the independent PIR Center in Moscow, which specializes in nuclear issues.
"In several years there could be as many as 20 countries with the basic know-how, that could give them the possibility to develop nuclear weapons. So, the kind of cooperation being proposed between the US and Russia could be an important tool for strengthening the nonproliferation regime."
For the Kremlin, which assumed chairmanship of the Group of 8 leading industrial democracies this year on a pledge to promote global "energy security," the diplomatic standoff over Iran presents a tough challenge and a huge opportunity.
"Putin has a grand energy strategy, which includes making Russia a reliable supplier of oil and gas to the world market, and putting it at the center of developing the global nuclear power industry," says Mr. Kremeniuk. "Tightening the nuclear non-proliferation regime through greater cooperation, if it succeeds, is one thing that can be good for Russia, and good for the world."
Others note that the idea of providing fuel to - and taking spent fuel back from - energy-seeking countries is not new, and is one way of dealing with the reality that fuel enrichment technology - a process that can lead to material needed for development of nuclear weapons - has become more available.
That explains the growing interest in dealing with the spent fuels of nuclear power production. The International Atomic Energy Agency under director Mohamed ElBaradei has also proposed a program to supply fuel and take in spent fuels for storage.
"With about a 10-year supply of uranium there's a glut of fuel for ... reactors, and that's what's driving proposals like ElBaradei's," says Kimball. The IAEA proposal includes a five-year freeze on construction of fuel enrichment facilities while the international community works out the details of a fuel supply program - one the IAEA would administer.
The least objectionable part of the proposal, experts say, is the idea of a few secure fuel suppliers taking spent fuel back in for storage. But US experts look back at the domestic controversy over the Yucca Mountain storage facility and say such a plan for internationally produced fuels would require changes in US law - and would certainly raise new protests.