Russian and U.S. officials signed an important agreement on civilian nuclear power that will give the United States access to Russian technology and could hand Moscow lucrative deals for storing spent fuel.
The deal, signed Tuesday on the eve of Dmitry Medvedev's inauguration as president, signals a reversal in U.S. policy on cooperating with Russia on nuclear issues. Cooperation had cooled in recent years, mainly due to disagreements over how to handle the perceived nuclear threat from Iran.
"The U.S. and Russia were once nuclear rivals," U.S. Ambassador William Burns said after a signing ceremony. "Today, we are nuclear partners with unique capabilities and unique responsibilities for global nuclear leadership."
But Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman said Tuesday he will join Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh in trying to the deal if President George W. Bush sends it to Congress, because he fears it could undermine efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iran.
Coleman and Bayh say Russia's exports of nuclear fuel to Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant and opposition to United Nations sanctions against Iran make the new deal suspect. In the letter, provided to The Associated Press, the senators say the deal "would pave the way for the increased commercialization of Russia's nuclear energy sector and could be construed as U.S. approval of its proliferation activities in Iran."
The deal _ signed by Burns and Russian atomic energy chief Sergei Kiriyenko _ will give the U.S. access to state-of-the art Russian nuclear technology.
That is important for the United States, where nuclear development has been virtually dormant since a 1979 reactor accident at Three Mile Island in the U.S. and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear explosion in the Soviet Union, experts say.
The U.S. is especially interested in learning of developments regarding fast-neutron reactors, as well as in recycling nuclear fuel and buying Russian-enriched uranium.
The deal would potentially allow other countries to transfer to Russia for storage spent nuclear fuel from the United States, according to a U.S. Embassy fact sheet.
The fuel storage plans have caused outrage among environmentalists and ordinary Russians, who fear such a project would turn the country into the world's nuclear dump.
But Kiriyenko said the deal does not mean Russia would be importing nuclear fuel from other countries. "Russia is not importing and will not import nuclear fuel," he said.
Work on the agreement began after outgoing President Vladimir Putin and Bush promised in 2006 to increase nuclear cooperation.
The U.S. administration's willingness to reverse course and work with Russia appears to reflect the U.S. view that Moscow is now a partner in the effort to persuade Tehran to abandon nuclear weapons ambitions, rather than a hindrance to it.
"The Bush administration is giving a green light on nuclear cooperation with Moscow," said Rose Gottemoeller, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
"This is a nod to the long and friendly relations between the Bush and the Putin administration and it sets the stage for some successful nuclear cooperation with the new administrations," in the Kremlin and the White House," she said.
The U.S. has similar agreements with other major economic powers, including China.