The U.S.-Russian Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation

The U.S.-Russian Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation

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Cole J. Harvey

Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

The Obama administration re-submitted the U.S.-Russian agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation to Congress on May 10, 2010. The agreement, which would allow the two countries to trade nuclear materials, technology and services, was originally signed and submitted to Congress for review in May 2008. However, following the August 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia, the U.S.-Russian relationship deteriorated significantly; the Bush administration withdrew the agreement from Congress on September 8 of that year. The agreement will automatically enter into force unless both houses of Congress pass a resolution of disapproval within 90 legislative days.

Some members of Congress have expressed displeasure with the agreement, citing Russia's cooperation with Iran in the nuclear field. A resolution of disapproval has been introduced in the House, and is under consideration by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In a letter transmitting the agreement to Congress, President Obama wrote that "the situation in Georgia need no longer be considered an obstacle to proceeding with the proposed Agreement; and…the level and scope of U.S.-Russia cooperation on Iran are sufficient to justify" the new submission.[1] Obama also welcomed joint U.S.-Russian endeavors in the nuclear sphere, such as the New START treaty. Since the resubmission of the agreement, Russia has also joined the United States in adopting a fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran.

As part of the submission, the administration provided a nuclear proliferation assessment statement (NPAS) to Congress in classified and unclassified forms. Though the unclassified version is not secret, it is currently unavailable to the public. This brief will be updated once the unclassified NPAS is released.

Terms of the Agreement

The proposed agreement will allow the two parties to cooperate in scientific research related to nuclear reactors and the nuclear fuel cycle, radioactive waste handling, "nuclear industry and commerce," and "shipments…of moderator material, nuclear material, technologies and equipment, as well as services in the area of the nuclear fuel cycle…"[2] Indeed, the agreement states that not only is such activity permitted, but that the governments will "facilitate commercial relations" in such fields.[3]

Unlike U.S. cooperation pacts with non-nuclear weapon states, the U.S.-Russian agreement does not allow the parties to require the return of transferred material in the event of a nuclear test, as required by the 1954 Atomic Energy Act.

However, the agreement does stipulate that any material or equipment transferred between the parties, or any material produced through the use of such imports "shall not be used…for any military purpose."[4] In addition, all transferred nuclear material (and nuclear material derived from such imports) must be kept under IAEA safeguards, including those provided by the more stringent Additional Protocol.[5]

In addition, no material transferred under the agreement can be re-exported to another country, and must be physically protected at the level recommended by the IAEA.[6] Nuclear material can only be "altered in form or content" if the parties agree. Advance consent is given for conversion, enrichment to less than 20 percent uranium-235, and the fabrication of LEU fuel, while the reprocessing of spent fuel is not mentioned.[7] Conversion is the process by which uranium hexafluoride is derived from yellowcake, a uranium concentrate powder. Uranium hexafluoride is gaseous under certain temperatures and pressures, and is the form of uranium used in the enrichment process. Uranium enriched to less than 20 percent is not considered weapons-usable. Advance consent for these processes is given since conversion and low-enrichment do not directly provide fissile material that can be used in a weapon. Advance consent is not given for spent fuel reprocessing, on the other hand, since reprocessing can produce weapons-usable plutonium.

If either party is found by the other to be in noncompliance with any of the agreement's provisions, including those related to safeguards and physical security, the two countries are obligated to hold consultations to address the problem.[8] In the event that the dispute cannot be resolved, the agreement can be temporarily suspended or permanently ended following one year's advance notice. Even if the agreement is terminated, IAEA safeguards are required to remain in effect over transferred nuclear material and related equipment.[9]

Some potential economic gains from the agreement are already clear. In May 2009, for example, three U.S. companies signed contracts with a subsidiary of Russia's Atomenergoprom, the state civil nuclear energy corporation, for the supply of Russian low-enriched uranium from 2014 to 2020. The head of Russia's nuclear energy regulator, Sergei Kiriyenko, announced that the deals were worth $1 billion in total.[10] The existing 1993 "Megatons-to-Megawatts" program through which Russia supplies the United States with low-enriched uranium for use in power reactors is a separate agreement between the two governments. Under the terms of that agreement, Russia downblends HEU from decommissioned nuclear warheads into LEU, which is then shipped to the United States. The program accounts for approximately 10% of the electricity generation in the United States.[11]

In July 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill that allows Russia to import and store foreign spent nuclear fuel. Though the bill was controversial, Russia's size, low-population density, and experience in nuclear industry make it especially well equipped to serve as a destination for spent fuel. While no state has yet taken advantage of this possibility, the business is potentially quite lucrative – many countries with nuclear industries are struggling with the political and economic costs of managing spent fuel, including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. When the Russian government proposed the import plan, it estimated that it could earn $10-20 billion from the importation of 20,000 tons of spent fuel over 10 years.[12] The possible importation of foreign spent fuel has not been well received by the Russian public, and no discussion of Russian importation of U.S. spent fuel has begun, although it is permitted under the proposed agreement.[13]

Congress's Role

The agreement will enter into force automatically following 90 days in which Congress is in session, unless both houses pass a resolution of disapproval. The resolution of disapproval would be subject to a presidential veto, which could only be overridden by two-thirds of both houses. The process is therefore biased towards approval, and only sustained and overwhelming opposition in Congress can prevent the agreement from becoming law. Given that the 90 day window is likely to expire during 2010, when Obama's party will still hold large majorities in both houses, it is unlikely that such vigorous opposition will emerge.

If broad Congressional opposition does develop, it will likely focus on Russia's alleged cooperation with Iran in the nuclear and missile fields. Russia is building a light-water reactor at Bushehr, and in 2005 agreed to sell advanced tactical air and missile defense system S-300 interceptors to Tehran (that sale has apparently been canceled following the adoption of the latest UN sanctions[14]).

Congress is considering imposing expanded unilateral sanctions on Iran, with the House and Senate have passed separate versions of the bill. The House version contains a clause on peaceful nuclear cooperation agreements, but it is unlikely to prove an obstacle to the Russian agreement.

The House bill, which passed in December by a vote of 412-12, would prohibit the entry into force of an agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation with any country whose citizens have been placed under U.S. sanctions by the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act. Such sanctions can be applied if an individual is determined to have "exported, transferred, or otherwise provided to Iran any goods, services, technology" that could assist Iran in the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction or "advanced conventional weapons." The Senate version of the Iran sanctions bill, passed in January, does not contain a provision on nuclear cooperation agreements.[15] The two bills will be merged in conference. Similarly, the connection between an IAEA-safeguarded light-water reactor and a nuclear weapons program is tenuous, and not likely to prevent the entry into force of the agreement for cooperation.[16] In theory, at least, such sanctions could conceivably be applied to Russia given its construction of the Bushehr light-water reactor in Iran, and previous exports that drew U.S. sanctions of Russian companies.

The Obama administration lifted those sanctions against three Russian companies on May 22. Two – Dmitry Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology and the Moscow Aviation Industry – were sanctioned in 1999. Russia's state arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, was sanctioned in 2008. All three had been sanctioned by the United States for alleged assistance to Iran's nuclear program. [17] In addition, the House bill allows the president to waive the trade restrictions if the government of the relevant country is taking "effective actions to penalize" the person targeted by U.S. sanctions. [18]

At the heart of the matter is a long-standing disagreement between the United States and Russia on the implications of the Bushehr project. According to Russia, that light-water nuclear power plant cannot contribute to a nuclear weapons program and is under IAEA safeguards. U.S. government had been in opposition to that project for more than 15 years, but gradually, as more controversial or questionable aspects of the deal were removed (including, most recently, a special agreement between Russia and Iran on the return of spent fuel [19]), the opposition softened. Many in Congress continue to object to any nuclear cooperation with Iran. However, the agreement would not have been submitted to Congress unless the administration had already determined that Russia's cooperation with Iran did not constitute a threat to U.S. nonproliferation goals and national security generally.[21]

Despite the unlikely prospect that expanded Congressional sanctions against Iran will affect the implementation of the U.S.-Russian agreement, members of Congress have still used the submission of the agreement to raise objections to Russia's activities in Iran. The ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, issued a strongly worded condemnation of the proposed deal, saying "This agreement is sending the wrong message, at the wrong time, to the wrong actors…Taking a quick look at Russian policy toward Iran should stop proponents of this agreement in their tracks. In addition to serving as Iran's protector on the UN Security Council, Moscow has aided Iran's nuclear development…[and] sold it missiles and advanced conventional weapons."[22] The committee's Democratic chairman, Representative Howard Berman, was unenthusiastic, though more circumspect:

    "At a time when Iran is actively seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability, establishing new nuclear cooperation agreements with other nations is far from the most critical nonproliferation issue. Rather, the international community, especially all members of the U.N. Security Council, should be focusing their efforts on meaningful action to prevent Iran from obtaining weapons that could have a devastating impact. At the appropriate time, we will examine the agreement more fully."[22]

Berman's and Ros-Lehtinen's counterparts on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic chairman John Kerry and ranking member Richard Lugar, have not made any public comment on the issue.

On May 25, Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) introduced H.J. Res. 85, a resolution "Expressing the disfavor of the Congress regarding the proposed agreement for cooperation between the United States and the Russian Federation…"[23] The resolution has been referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

In announcing the resolution, Representative Markey said, "Russia continues to train Iranian nuclear physicists, supply sensitive nuclear technology to Iran, and give secret instruction on Russian soil to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on the use of the advanced S-300 interceptor-missile systems." Markey noted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's May 11, 2010, meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, where the issue of nuclear cooperation was raised, and asked "Does Russia want cooperation with the United States, or with Iran and Syria? Because it can't have both."[24]

Similarly, Representative Fortenberry said, "Russia cannot have it both ways. Russia needs to decide who it will be; a nation that stops the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities or accommodates it. Any nuclear agreement with Russia, particularly given its willingness to collaborate with the nuclear activities of Iran and Syria, deserves the closest scrutiny and examination. Congress must assert itself."[25]

It should be noted that, contrary to Representative Markey's assertion, Russia is not known to be supplying "sensitive nuclear technology to Iran." Russia's only state-sanctioned nuclear cooperation with Iran is the construction of the Bushehr light-water reactor, which is under IAEA safeguards and could contribute little to a weapons program. Gary Samore, the White House 'WMD czar,'[27] told reporters on May 12 that "As long as I've been in this job, there's been no concern about Russian entities providing nuclear assistance to Iran." Likewise, Russia has not yet followed through on its 2005 agreement to export the S-300 missile- and aircraft-interceptors to Iran. Samore said on May 12 that "We've made it very clear to the Russians that [transfer of the S-300s] would have a very significant impact on bilateral relations…I'd be surprised if those transfers take place."[28] As noted above, the deal appears to have been canceled.

In addition, since the introduction of the House resolution of disapproval, Russia has joined with the United States and other members of the UN Security Council in passing a fourth sanctions resolution against Iran on June 9, 2010. The resolution imposes new restrictions on some Iranian financial institutions, expands the list of sanctioned companies, and mandates that Iran cease its ballistic missile development and that all states take steps to prevent the transfer of missile technology or assistance to Iran.[30] Russia's support for the resolution may weaken the case in Congress for blocking the entry into force of the agreement.


  • The text of the U.S.-Russian agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation and the 2008 NPAS,
  • 2006 NTI issue brief on proposed agreement,
  • 2008 Congressional Research Service analysis of the agreement,


[1] "Message from the President Regarding a Peaceful Nuclear Agreement with Russia," May 10, 2010,
[2] "Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation for Cooperation in the Field of Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy" (hereafter 'The Agreement'), Article 2,
[3] Text of the Agreement, Article 4.
[4] Text of the Agreement, Article 12.
[5] Text of the Agreement, Article 13.
[6] Text of the Agreement, Articles 8 and 11.
[7] Test of the Agreement, Article 9.
[8] Text of the Agreement, Article 15.
[9] Text of the Agreement, Article 20.
[10] "Russian, U.S. firms sign $1 bln low-enriched uranium supply deal," RIA Novosti, May 26, 2008,
[11] Andrew Newman, "Megatons to Megawatts,", February 22, 2010,
[12] Matthew Bunn, "Russian Import of Foreign Spent Fuel: Status and Policy Implications," Harvard Belfer Center, July 15-19, 2001,
[13] Text of the Agreement, Article 7.
[14] "Russian officials confirm Iran sanctions block S-300 missile sale," RIA Novosti, June 11, 2010,;, for announcement in Russian.
[15] S.2799,
[16] Iran Freedom Support Act, Public Law 109-293, Section 202.
[17] "U.S. lifts sanctions on Russian arms exporter," Reuters, May 22, 2010,
[18] Text of H.R. 2194 as passed by the House. Page 18.
[19] Mary Beth Nikitin, "U.S.-Russian Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement: Issues for Congress," Congressional Research Service, September 9, 2008. Page 6,
[20] The transmittal letter from President Obama to Congress states that "I approve the proposed Agreement and have determined that the performance of the Agreement will promote, and will not constitute and unreasonable risk to, the common defense and security."
[21] Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, press release, May 11, 2010,
[22] "Chairman Berman responds to Administration's U.S.-Russia nuclear proposal," May 11, 2010,
[23] H.J. Res. 85. Available online at
[24] "Markey and Fortenberry Introduce Resolution of Disapproval of Proposed Nuclear Deal," press release from Representative Edward Markey, May 25, 2010,
[25] Ibid.
[26] Samore's full title is Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for Arms Control, Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism. He has held the position since January 2009.
[27] Josh Rogin, "Samore: Arms control agenda linked to Middle East Peace," Foreign Policy, May 12, 2010,
[28] "Message from the President Regarding a Peaceful Nuclear Agreement with Russia," May 10, 2010, the White House,
[29] UN Security Council resolution 1929, June 9, 2010. Page 5,
[30] The conclusion of the treaty is one result of closer U.S.-Russian cooperation on nuclear issues cited by President Obama in his letter resubmitting the U.S.-Russian Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation to Congress.

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