As New START Debate Rages, Quiet Nuclear Progress With Russia

As New START debate rages, another nuclear agreement is quietly coming into force.

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Matthew Rojansky is deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

While the Senate and White House wrestle over New START ratification, another U.S.-Russia nuclear agreement is coming into force with little debate or fanfare. Instead of cutting nuclear arms, the civil nuclear cooperation deal, dubbed "123," opens the door to new peaceful nuclear engagement between U.S. and Russian companies. Since Congress has been able to review the agreement for 90 days of "continuous session" as of this week, it now goes into effect automatically. This deal will greatly improve the ability of both nuclear powers to prevent proliferation—helping to stop sensitive nuclear materials or technology from falling into the wrong hands and being used to build bombs.

The mandate for such cooperation comes not a moment too soon. An acrimonious debate over New START has distracted from the arguably more important accomplishments of the reset, notably the establishment of a Bilateral Presidential Commission and the accomplishments of its working groups on nuclear security, business and economic development, and scientific cooperation. Participants, senior officials, and industry leaders have all cited the 123 agreement as a necessary step to advance mutual interests, improve relations, and deliver on the promise of the reset.

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Beyond benefiting relations, cooperation on peaceful nuclear energy makes financial sense. The United States and Russia have invested substantially in civilian nuclear research and development, and both share basic interests in capitalizing on the global "nuclear energy renaissance" by developing proliferation-resistant reactor technologies, increasing environmental safety, and making nuclear energy more economically competitive.

And when it comes to civil nuclear power, Russia brings a lot to the table. For instance, the United States does not operate so-called "fast breeder" reactors and reprocessing facilities that don't produce nuclear waste that can be used for weapons, but Russia does. And, while the United States hasn't built a single new nuclear power plant since 1973, Russia opened its first fast breeder reactor that very year and plans to bring 26 new nuclear facilities online before 2030. And the Kremlin has already allocated some $3.6 billion for research on fast breeders and other projects under a program dedicated to the next generation of nuclear technology.

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With U.S. support, Russia has developed a sophisticated infrastructure to securely store spent nuclear fuel—and Moscow even offered to store and reprocess spent fuel from the United States, while no American state has been willing to do the same. Russian companies already supply roughly half of the uranium consumed in U.S. and European power plants and will need to supply more in the future as the United States is only able to produce a fifth—at most—of its nuclear fuel stock domestically. Fortunately, Russia's nuclear industry is interested in expanding its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activity in the U.S. market and potentially cooperating with American firms, including GE and Westinghouse, on bids for contracts in other countries.

Closer U.S.-Russia cooperation on nuclear power means better nuclear security. As a major player in civil nuclear markets worldwide, Russia has a unique window into potential risks and opportunities to insist on measures that protect sensitive sites and technologies. Russia, with U.S. support, also has the chance to compete more effectively with China's nuclear industry, which is less scrupulous in its nonproliferation commitments.

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The importance of partnering with Russia was made clear during Secretary Clinton's recent trip to Central Asia. Belarus, the former Soviet republic, agreed to give up its stock of highly enriched uranium by 2012 in return for U.S. help in developing a new nuclear power reactor. But Russia has had its eye on this potentially lucrative project, and has the right experience to work effectively with Belarus's Soviet-era infrastructure. Washington should cooperate—instead of compete—with Moscow to build an environmentally safe, proliferation-proof reactor in Belarus. A quarter century after the Chernobyl disaster, this would be a powerful symbol that both sides can move beyond the Cold War legacy.