The US and Russia have agreed to collaborate in returning weapons-grade uranium to Russia from vulnerable nuclear reactors throughout the former USSR. Analysts say the deal, signed Friday, could be the first step in a new multilateral strategy for handling the global spread of nuclear technology and material, and deterring terrorist threats.
The plan to repatriate the highly enriched uranium (HEU) coincides with growing efforts to tighten the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and better control access to nuclear technology. HEU is attractive to terrorists because it can be fashioned into a crude nuclear device with relative ease.
"We need to rethink the entire role of nuclear technology cooperation," says Charles Curtis, president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington, which is heavily involved in nonproliferation efforts in the former USSR. "Russia is, on things nuclear, the essential partner.... They have to be part of the solution."
US Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham lauded the deal, which covers 20 research reactors in 17 countries, as a joint move to "reduce the threat of terrorism and prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction."
Moscow has proposed creating a long-term repository in western Siberia to help ease the global buildup of spent nuclear fuel. But standing in the way of this and some other US-Russia collaborative efforts is an $800 million reactor project in Bushehr, Iran. Washington has insisted that Russia stop building the reactor out of fear that the transfer of Russian know-how would boost what it believes is a clandestine Iranian weapons program.
Some 80 percent of non-Russian nuclear fuel worldwide originated in the US. But while the US Department of Energy has helped Russia develop long-term storage plans for it, the dispute over Iran remains an obstacle. Russian environmentalists have also protested.
Iran, meanwhile, is on the verge of signing a fuel services deal with Russia: Moscow would provide all nuclear material to Iran for the Bushehr reactor, and then return all spent fuel. The chief of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Hassan Rohani, met top Rus sian officials Sunday in Moscow to hammer out details.
As a way of keeping control of fissile material - and enticing nations to forgo expensive, self-contained nuclear fuel cycles that can also be used to make weapons-grade material - the deal is being seen as a template for the future.
Many experts and officials, including Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), want to take this a step further by creating international centers so that just a few nations would provide centralized fuel and waste services for all. "Many countries around the world think that having international centers could be beneficial, because they don't want to have to worry about the nuclear waste," says Rose Gottemoeller, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, who was in charge of nonproliferation policy at the Department of Energy from 1997 to 2000. "And they realize it is more economical for them to buy nuclear services."
For countries like Iran, however, which have already invested heavily in their own enrichment plans - and might also have clandestine weapons ambitions - it might be a tough sell, she says.
US State Department officials were quoted last week suggesting that Russia might halt the reactor project if Iran does not openly declare all its efforts and permit thorough inspections. On Saturday in Vienna, Mr. Rohani reassured Mr. ElBaradei that the IAEA would receive formal notification - possibly by Monday - that Iran will accept intrusive nuclear inspections, sign the Additional Protocol of the NPT, and suspend uranium-enrichment efforts.
"We have been getting satisfactory cooperation from Iran," ElBaradei said. "I hope this is something that will continue." ElBaradei is to provide the IAEA with a fresh report on Iranian compliance soon. Iran has tried to satisfy an Oct. 31 deadline to rectify "failures" found by the IAEA in Iran's reporting of undeclared enrichment activities.
The proliferation issues in Iran - as well as in North Korea - have spotlighted NPT weaknesses. Under the umbrella of the NPT, Pyongyang legally developed its own nuclear-fuel cycle - and then withdrew from the treaty when it decided to make its nuclear-weapons program public. The CIA assesses that North Korea has "produced one or two simple fission-type nuclear weapons."
Analysts fear that Iran could do the same thing, as previously undeclared enrichment programs have come to light in recent months. Though Russia has close nuclear ties with Iran, analysts say the Kremlin was shocked at the extent of Tehran's undeclared efforts. Gottemoeller says that several top Rus- sian officials have told her privately of their embarrassment at finding out about Iran's undeclared centrifuge program at Natanz, and the heavy-water reactor at Arak. As information emerged that several European companies supplied the goods, according to a "shopping list" provided by Pakistan, she adds, the result has been a "sea change" in thinking in Moscow.
"What has changed is that Russia is playing an important role in influencing Iran's cooperation with the IAEA," says NTI's Curtis, a former deputy secretary in the Department of Energy.
ElBaradei has suggested a new security framework that restricts processing of weapon-usable material "exclusively to facilities under multinational control," and called for a similar approach to disposal of spent fuel. All countries should "turn off the tap" on producing new material for weapons under the new framework, he said. Rumyantsev echoed the IAEA leader, with a Russia proposal for several international centers to manage global nuclear fuel supply and waste.
Up-to-date technologies and security would strengthen nonproliferation efforts, and help ease risks from 200,000 tons of material that has built up since the beginning of the nuclear industry, and expands by 10,000 tons a year. "That's where the Russia proposition has resonance," says a Western diplomat in Vienna close to the IAEA. The Russians "should get brownie points for moving toward this process," he says.
Such efforts to centralize nuclear power "are better than the current situation," but will still need work, says Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington. "There are some countries you wouldn't want to have" nuclear energy," Mr. Spector says. "Even if Russia supplies fuel from outside, should Syria have a nuclear power plant?"