Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Nuclear Issues: Moving Away From the Nuclear Button

By Ernest Corea
Courtesy of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON D.C. (IDN) - Russia and the U.S. are expected to exchange information about their nuclear weapons stockpiles on March 22, 2011 as required under the provisions of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). They last exchanged corresponding information in July 2009, under the previous START that ended in December that year.

In another development, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (France, China, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.) are hoping to meet in June to examine actions required from commitments they made in connection with the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, the Global Security Newswire has reported, quoting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller.

These trends are considered "positive but tentative" among political observers, but they are rivalled by a separate, less than positive attempt by sections of the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representative to eliminate 10 percent (over $1 billion) of the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) budget.

A news report points out that "NNSA maintains the nation's nuclear stockpile, runs the nuclear lab complex, and fights the illegal trade of nuclear technology and material. Non-proliferation programs face the most drastic reductions."

Whatever becomes of this effort, the Obama Administrations remains committed to the new START, as well as to related developments, although the excitement generated by recent events in the Middle East has moved some of these off the headlines.


For instance, the fact that the new START, the first agreement since the end of the Cold War, has actually been launched received scant attention. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov exchanged the new START's "instruments of ratification" at the time of the 47th annual Munich Security Conference.

Russia and the U.S. are obliged to exchange information on nuclear warheads and delivery systems within 45 days of the date (February 5) when the documents were signed and exchanged. In the long term, the new START commits each nation to reduce its nuclear war heads over the next seven years from 2200 to 1500.

Also very much in the background is another important development: the inauguration of a 123 Agreement on civil nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and Russia.

The agreement takes its title from Section 123.a of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954 which permits U.S. companies to "share nuclear technology and materials with foreign counterparts, carry out joint research and development activities, and bid jointly on civil nuclear projects." Among the 25 countries with which the U.S. has signed such agreements -- in addition to Russia -- are Australia, China, Egypt, Japan, India, South Korea, and the UAE.


A U.S.-Russia 123 Agreement was initially signed in 2008 but was withdrawn from Congressional review when war broke out between Russia and Georgia. However, when Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev subsequently issued a Joint Statement on Nuclear Cooperation, they committed their two countries to re-creating a 123 Agreement.

Based on this commitment, as well as on a broader attempt by the two countries to "re-set" their bilateral relations, a new agreement was signed and submitted to Congress for the legally required approval last year.
The "reset" attempt has had both noticeable successes as well as failures. The 123 Agreement is considered an entry on the plus side of the ledger and is touted by both governments as a good faith effort to emphasise collaboration on civil nuclear programs.

U.S. Government spokesmen say that the agreement provides the basis for "joint efforts on innovative nuclear energy systems and technologies, reliable nuclear fuel cycle services, joint ventures in third countries, and other types of cooperation."

Both countries can claim that they have moved forward in this area and secured such advances as:

-- Launching the new START;

-- Signing a protocol to amend the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, under which both countries will dispose of approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons-worth of excess weapon-grade plutonium;

-- Establishing a Russian international nuclear fuel bank and an IAEA fuel bank that provide incentives for other nations not to acquire sensitive uranium enrichment technology; and

-- Russia has also shut down its last remaining weapon-grade plutonium production reactor.

Taken together, these are significant accomplishments made by both sides.

Supporters of The U.S.-Russia 123 Agreement say that it satisfies all applicable requirements of U.S. law for agreements of this type with a nuclear-weapon state, as defined by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. It has a term of 30 years and permits the transfer of technology, material, equipment (including reactors), and components for nuclear research and nuclear power production.

They also argue that the agreement offers significant benefits to the U.S.: a solid foundation for long-term U.S.-Russia civil nuclear cooperation; commercial opportunities for U.S. industry; and enhanced cooperation on important global nonproliferation goals.


An assessment drawn up by the U.S. Government claims that the entry into force of the U.S.-Russia 123 Agreement will advance these key nonproliferation and commercial goals:

"-- Nuclear Nonproliferation Cooperation: The 123 Agreement will create the conditions for improved cooperation on joint technology development to support arms control and nonproliferation activities. It will also provide the necessary legal framework for joint efforts to convert research reactors from highly-enriched uranium to low enriched uranium fuel. The 123 Agreement will aid cooperation on forensic analysis, allowing the U.S. to better identify nuclear material and prevent it from getting into the hands of terrorists, and it will set the stage for expanded joint technical cooperation on next generation international safeguards.

"-- Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation: The 123 Agreement will facilitate cooperative work on reactor designs that result in reduced proliferation risk. It will create the conditions for advanced research and development projects that partner U.S. national laboratories and industry with Russian partners to explore new areas for collaboration, including fuel fabrication, innovative fuel types, and advanced reactor design.

"-- Commercial Opportunities: The 123 Agreement will support commercial interests by allowing U.S. and Russian firms to team up more easily in joint ventures and by permitting U.S. sales of nuclear material and equipment to Russia. This will put the United States and Russia’s nuclear relationship on a stronger commercial footing. Russian and U.S. firms will be able to develop advanced nuclear reactors, fuel-cycle approaches, and cutting-edge technology that are safe, secure, and reliable.

"-- Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation Action Plan: The 123 Agreement will allow long-term civil nuclear cooperation to proceed under the U.S.-Russian Presidential Commission Working Group on Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Security, specifically activities in the Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation Action Plan which relate to reactor design, innovative nuclear energy technology options, and developing the global civil nuclear energy framework."


Civil society groups have criticized the agreement on the ground that it does not take into account the environmental damage that is likely to be caused or expanded by civilian nuclear cooperation.

They have also argued that it is more important to advocate for total disarmament than to seek ways of expanding mutually profitable civilian nuclear cooperation.

Opposition in the U.S. House of Representatives and elsewhere to the agreement and other forms of cooperation on non-proliferation and disarmament is of a different kind. It grows out of a yearning for ascendancy in an unipolar world. (IDN-InDepthNews/19.02.2011)

Copyright © 2011 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.