U.S., Russia Explore Deal to Store Nuclear Waste The Bush administration says it is ready to begin formal negotiations with Russia over a civilian nuclear agreement. A potential deal would clear the way for Russia to import and store thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel.
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U.S., Russia Explore Deal to Store Nuclear Waste

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U.S., Russia Explore Deal to Store Nuclear Waste

U.S., Russia Explore Deal to Store Nuclear Waste

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is on vacation.

The Bush administration says it is ready to begin formal negotiations with Russia over a civilian nuclear agreement. That decision comes as President Bush prepares to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg later this week. Such an agreement will allow Russia to store nuclear waste from around the world, potentially generating billions of dollars for the Russian economy. Until now, the U.S. had blocked countries from sending their nuclear waste to Russia if the fuel originated in the United States.

Washington has pressured Russia to stop building a nuclear power station for Iran. But now, the Bush administration believes that this pact could bring Moscow into line with the U.S. approach to Iran.

Later, the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page, and an argument that big corporations hide too many secrets from the public. But first: the U.S.-Russia nuclear pact. If you have a question about the agreement, what it would do, what it means for securing nuclear material, and what it says about U.S./Russian relations, give us a call. Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255 - that's 800-989-TALK. And our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. We turn first to David Sanger, The New York Times White House correspondent. He joins me here in Studio 3A. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID SANGER (White House Correspondent, The New York Times): Thank you. Good to be back with you.

NEARY: First of all, what has led to this sort of reversal of the Bush administration's decision - the Bush administration's policy? Why this decision to enter into negotiations now with Russia?

Mr. SANGER: I think the main thing that has led to it is a recognition that they need some leverage over the Russians to deal with Iran. In the talks about how to deal with Iran and whether or not Iran would suspend its enrichment of uranium and consider an offer the Europeans made, there's been enormous difficulty in getting the Russians on board on threatening sanctions against Iran, just as there has been in the more recent discussion about North Korea. In this case, they give the - the White House gives the Russians a way of managing to have some leverage over the Russians by keeping this negotiation dangling while the Iran issue is live.

NEARY: Well, okay, the details of this agreement obviously still to be worked out, but give me a rough outline of what this will do.

Mr. SANGER: What it would simply do is permit the Russians to begin to setup fairly large nuclear waste repositories. And ultimately, the Russians would hope the ability to go reprocess some of this waste on their soil. And it would enable countries that have bought their nuclear fuel from the United States to send it to Russia. Right now, the United States keeps control over all nuclear fuel and the shipments that originated here. So if you're South Korea, or you're Taiwan, and you want to ship the waste some place else, you need American permission.

The U.S. withheld its permission from Russia while the Russians were building the big Bushehr reactor in Iran. Now the Russians have reached a compromise with the U.S. in which they've said any fuel we send to Iran we'll take back. So the Iranians couldn't use it later on for weapons.

NEARY: Every story I've read mentions that this could make billions of dollars for the Russians. How do they make those billions of dollars?

Mr. SANGER: You know, no country in the world wants to go through the domestic political cost of finding a place to go bury their nuclear waste on their own soil. The Russian parliament pushed through - over popular objections a few years ago - some legislation that would allow them to become the repository. And certainly, they have a lot of vast land out there to do it.

There is concern, however, about how safe the Russian procedures are in dealing with this waste, just as there is continuing concern about whether or not, the Russians have done all they can do to secure some of their own nuclear materials from the nuclear weapons programs that people feel are - fear could fall in the hands of terrorists.

NEARY: Sticking points in these talks that will be leading to an eventual agreement.

Mr. SANGER: Well, one sticking point may well be whether or not the Russians can reprocess this material. The United States policy has always been to avoid the separation of plutonium that eventually could get diverted to weapons use. But there could be congressional objections as well. I mean, obviously, our relations with Russia are fairly tense right now, as people worry that President Putin is recentralizing power. That could be one set of objections. You've already heard from some members of Congress over the weekend who have said, you know, this is not a moment right now to be putting together a deal from which the Russians get a lot, and we get maybe some leverage.

NEARY: Let me ask you about that reuse that you've already mentioned. How does that work? How would, how - you take the stored waste, and then reprocess it. And why would that be such a concern…

Mr. SANGER: Well…

NEARY: …if Russia would be able to have the capability to do that?

Mr. SANGER: It depends in what form and over what security. There are ways to take nuclear fuel and put it into a form of glass pellets and other forms that are very difficult to turn into weapons fuel later on. They are other forms that are more troublesome. This has become a big business and a big controversy around the world. The Japanese send their waste out for - to be processed in France and Britain and shipped back. Once you have this material being shipped around the world, you have vulnerabilities around it.

NEARY: Yeah. How explicit is the Bush administration going to be about what they expect to get for the U.S.?

Mr. SANGER: You know, we were surprised over the weekend - after the initial story on this came out in The Washington Post - the White House turned out a statement that was quite explicit about what they expected the Russians to do in regards to Iran. And in their private discussions with the Russians, were told they been even more explicit. Now, of course, what they're doing here is trying to convince the Russians to give up a fairly lucrative business with Iran. So they've concluded the only way to fight fire here is with fire - give them an alternative business model as well.

NEARY: All right, we're talking about U.S./Russian nuclear cooperation. If you'd like to join our discussion, the number's 1-800-989-8255. And let's take a call now from Gabriel(ph) in Americus, Georgia. Hi, Gabriel.

GABRIEL (Caller): Good afternoon.

NEARY: Go ahead.

GABRIEL: Yeah, my question is right now, instead of actually trying to - how should I say - develop principals and policies with regards to this waste, we're actually absolving ourselves of our responsibility and giving it to a third-party, third-world event that actually doesn't have environmental laws -legislative processes no oversight to actually be able to do anything with this event that we've created for, I don't know, 10,000 years is its half life. It seems somewhat irresponsible of us to ship out our trash when we don't even have policies that can make our own depot here in the United States.

NEARY: Well, I think, to be clear, David, we're not talking about nuclear waste from the United States.

MR. SANGER: That's right, just nuclear waste that the United States has control over. Although Russia's idea, over time, is to become a repository for this waste from many places around the world.

GABRIEL: Well, that's great. I mean, they had Chernobyl so we'll see what happens with that.

NEARY: All right. Does that answer your question?

NEARY: Unfortunately not, but thank you, though.

NEARY: Okay.

MR. SANGER: You know, the caller raises a very interesting point, which is as part of the agreement, we could well work in environmental restrictions. I don't know whether the administration plans to do that.

NEARY: Okay. Let's talk a little bit about Congress, because of course, any agreement would have to be approved by Congress. You've said that there's likely to be some opposition. Let's talk about what are the sort of outlines of opposition we're going to see?

MR. SANGER: Well, Congress's role in this particular case might be a little bit limited, because in the case of the civilian nuclear deal that's being struck with India, India is not a signatory in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and so laws had to be amended. In this particular case, Congress has a time to review it, but if that time expires and they don't come up with a significant vote against it, then it would go into effect. So it would be an interesting, but somewhat different case than the Indian one. The objections in Congress may turn on the nuclear issues, but I suspect will probably turn more on the nature of the relationship with Russia, and a lot of that depends on this when this would actually come to a fruition as an agreement and as a vote, and what's happened in the Iran case between now and them.

NEARY: Well, what does this say about the relationship between the U.S. and Russia at this time and where the Bush administration wants it to go? And there's a lot of concern, or there's some concern amongst a certain quarter of members of Congress regarding the nature of Vladimir Putin's presidency, the authoritarian nature of his presidency. How much is that going to play into this?

MR. SANGER: I think it'll play in a lot in the case of Congress. The administration has been a bit divided on this. Until recently, their view has been the way the deal with President Putin would be to criticize him and twist his arm in private and be supportive in public. You've seen that breakdown now, particularly with the Vice President Chaney's trip to Eastern Europe about a month and a half ago where he delivered a quite toughly worded speech about what was going on in Russia, and that was very deliberate. The effort was to have him play the heavy and deliver the hard message so that the president doesn't have to, in public on Russian soil next weekend when he's in St. Petersburg for the G-8 Summit. And the question is whether at this point, toward the end of President Putin's presidency, the U.S. really has much leverage over him.

NEARY: No. And one other thing we have not talked about, and that is that the Bush administration, as I understand it, also sees this as a way to promote the idea that countries should move away from using oil, move more towards the use of nuclear energy. Talk about that a little bit and how that fits into all of this.

Mr. SANGER: This will fit to some degree into the president's global nuclear energy initiative, where the bigger problem has really been trying to get nuclear power plants started up in the United States where…been almost no new construction in the past 30 years and just the first agreements to build some new power plants. Other countries have moved ahead much more quickly in this. But until you solve the waste problem, you can't really solve the question of where and how you might place new nuclear plants around the world. So you need a repository for this. The administration moved in a big step in this direction at the end of last year when the president endorsed a Russian proposal to let Iran conduct enrichment on Russian soil so it would take away some of the risks that the Iranians would be able to divert materials to a weapons program. And having gone that far, this step that they have announced this weekend is just sort of one more along those lines.

NEARY: And how long will this whole process take?

MR. SANGER: You know, it could take a long time. It took years, and it's still going on to try to get Russia to the WTO. This could take months at least.

NEARY: Thanks very much, David. David Sanger is a New York Times White House correspondent, and he joined me here in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. The Bush administration plans to negotiate a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia. It would allow that country to become a major storage sight for U.S.-supplied nuclear material from around the world. For Russia, it's a chance to make billions of dollars. In return, the U.S. hopes for Russian cooperation to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb. You're invited to join our discussion. If you have questions about what a U.S./Russian agreement would look like and what it would mean for nuclear energy waste and safety, give us a call. Our number here in Washington, 800-989-TALK, or you can send us an e-mail to talk@npr.org.

Environmental and non-proliferation activists have already been somewhat split on this announcement. Environmentally, opening up Russia to nuclear storage will solve many countries' concerns about nuclear energy, and for that reason may actually encourage countries to rely more on nuclear energy. But others are concerned this deal rewards Russia for essentially not complying with the United States' firm stance against Iran's nuclear enrichment program, a program price that may be too high.

George Perkovich is the Vice President of Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a non-proliferation expert. And he believes that the pact will do more good than harm. And he also joins me here in Studio 3A. Thanks for being with us.

Dr. GEORGE PERKOVICH (Vice President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Thank you.

NEARY: Why do you think this agreement is a positive thing?

Dr. PERKOVICH: I think it could be a positive thing in a sense that cooperation with Russia - if we have a real clear idea that Russia will stick with us in dealing with Iran and possibly taking tough measures with Iran - that that's so important that if the deal helped bring that about, it would be beneficial. But I think that's a big if. So in principal, this cooperation can be helpful, but there's a lot left to be seen to decide whether actually it'll turn out that way.

NEARY: Are you concerned about the way the spent fuel will be used by Russia? Or the possibility it could fall into other hands, be reprocessed into nuclear weapons?

Dr. PERKOVICH: My concern is less that than the vision in part that elements of the U.S. government and the Russians may have about the future of nuclear power, in which this cooperation could be the beginning of an attempt to revitalize nuclear power based on reprocessing and using plutonium as a fuel. And I think if that comes to pass, then it could create the sense around the world that plutonium is normal and has economic value. That ultimately would be bad from a proliferation point of view.

NEARY: Putin has shown himself to be a fairly authoritarian ruler. What reason do you have for being optimistic that he'll comply with U.S. goals, what the U.S. wants?

Dr. PERKOVICH: Well, one of the good things about authoritarian rulers is that if they make up their mind to do something, there's a chance they can really carry out what they say they're going to do. The problem is he hasn't made up his mind that actually he wants to work with the United States, France, and the United Kingdom in squeezing Iran, putting pressure on Iran through the Security Council. I think there are a number of reasons why he hasn't chosen to do that, in fact, has reneged on things that he would do that. And among them might be financial issues that could be addressed by this nuclear cooperation deal.

I think there are other issues that are more important and more difficult for us. For example, Ukraine, which matters a lot to Russia - not having Ukraine go into NATO and be part of the democratic western world. And he doesn't like the way the U.S. has tried to pull Ukraine to the west. The same with Georgia. So there are a number of issues where Putin's vision of what he wants for Russia and President Bush's vision about Democracy and freedom really come to a head. And Iran has been an area where Putin could say okay, I'm not going to give you the thing you want, which is my cooperation on Iran. Maybe this nuclear deal can start to tilt that equation back.

NEARY: New York Times correspondent David Sanger, I'm curious. I haven't seen anything, but has there been any response from Iran? Has Iran weighed in on this news at all so far?

Mr. SANGER: I have not seen any response from the Iranians. They are somewhat, right now, completely tied up with the question of whether and when they are going to respond to the offer that the United States and Europe made more than a month ago. And you'll recall that President Bush said he needed an answer within weeks, not months. Once they get to the G-8 Summit this weekend, they're going to be beginning to push that. And that's why this could be the summer of simultaneous nuclear standoffs with the Iranians and the North Koreans.

NEARY: We're talking about the start of negotiations for a civilian nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Russia. If you have any questions about that, give us a call at 800-989-TALK. That's 800-989-8255. And we are going to take a call now. We're going to go to Jamie(ph). and Jamie's calling from Washington D.C. Hi, Jamie.

JAMIE (Caller): Thanks for taking my call. I'll just make an observation. I want to see if the commenters should react to it. It does strike me that the transaction is more of a commercial one, where we exchange a business opportunity for Russia. Isn't it also kind of the confession of failed statesmanship and diplomacy that we have to substitute some revenue stream for the Russians? And this in the form of the cleanup business, let's call it, or the radioactive fuel cleanup business. And just a second point, couldn't we impose some of the environmental protections that we're so fearful of? When we don't even trust the Russians to protect their nuclear stockpiles, why are we giving them more of a radiated hot material that we then have to be concerned about? And I'll take my answer off the air.

NEARY: Thanks so much for calling. George Perkovich?

Dr. PERKOVICH: Well, there are a lot of ironies in the nuclear business around the world. Sometimes you want countries to do things that our rules say we wouldn't do, and you're kind of grateful that there's somebody else in the world who doesn't follow the rules as strictly as you do. Nuclear waste is, you know, as the caller suggests, a scary thing. It's a big, big problem that lasts a long, long time. We haven't figured out how to do it really well in a sense that it's politically accepted. So if you find somebody else in the world who's prepared to take that problem, you know, yeah. You're concerned about the environment in Russia, but I think the political impulse would be great. They'll deal with in ways that we can't, so you ship it off. It's not good from a global point of view in terms of environmental standards and so forth, but as a practical matter, you know, countries look at it and say great.

NEARY: The U.S. has nuclear waste agreements with other countries, most notably China, correct? Is that right?

Dr. PERKOVICH: We have nuclear cooperation agreements…

NEARY: Nuclear cooperation.

Dr. PERKOVICH: …with other countries, and that allows, as this one would, all sorts of cooperation - cooperation on designing new reactors, on selling them reactors, and also potentially on giving permission for countries to ship spent fuel there. China doesn't want to take other countries' spent fuel. The issue doesn't come up. Russia has expressed a potential interest in this, but we have nuclear cooperation agreements with lots of countries.

NEARY: Okay. Let's take a call now from Chris(ph) in Seattle. Chris, hi.

CHRIS (Caller): Good morning from the West Coast. My question and comments kind of fall in nicely with the last caller's comments. I read a book several years ago called - I believe the title was One Point Safe, which highlighted a lot of the gaps in security that the Russians have for storing nuclear materials. One such method they had was they had fuel in what basically they took to be high school lockers guarded by an elderly woman with a pistol with a padlock on the door. And that was the extent of their security.

Now, basically, the question is are we better off having fuel away from us so we don't have the environmental impacts affecting us as much here in the United States, such as in Hanford - the Hanford site out in Washington that we have here - or would it be better for us to bring that stuff back home or bring it to a more secure facility so we know that the security guarantees that we actually require in the age of terrorism will in fact be in place. And then we can address the environmental issues as well in a place where we know there's going to be oversight and there's going to be all sorts of auditing and so on and so forth.

NEARY: George Perkovich, go ahead.

Dr. PERKOVICH: Well, first on both parts of it, would we bring the fuel that we've supplied to these other countries, will we bring it back home quote “to the U.S.”? The answer is over Congress's dead body. I mean the U.S. is not going to take that fuel back because our elected representatives and their constituents aren't going to want it.

Secondly, you know, the good news is we've been paying Russia billions of dollars for the last 15 years to make more secure facilities in Russia to store not necessarily to spent fuel but plutonium, which has been already separated and is much more dangerous in terms of the use for nuclear weapons.

And so I think Congress, in dealing with this proposal from the administration, that's one of the most obvious questions or criteria they would have would be what is the security of the facilities where Russia would take fuel. That's a no-brainer. And the Russians have every interest in going along with that in a sense, and the revenue would be there in order to provide that kind of security at those facilities.

NEARY: And where's the waste now? Where is it being stored right now?

Dr. PERKOVICH: In most countries, as in the United States, where you put it is next to the reactor where it's been used. In other words, dry cast storage is what we call it. It's above ground. And that may be, by the way, the best idea. Nobody kind of followed it at the beginning.

It wasn't the intended place to put it, it's all supposed to go to central repositories, but since the repositories don't work and people worry about transportation, kind of leave it in the United States next to the reactors. And that's what the South Koreans do, it's what other countries do. That may not actually be a bad idea.

NEARY: Let's bring another viewpoint into this discussion. Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and he doesn't think this pact is such a good idea. He joins me here in Studio 3A as well.

Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. And what are you concerns about the possibility of this agreement with Russia?

Mr. HENRY SOKOLSKI (Executive Director, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center): Maybe you need to recast what you just said.

NEARY: Okay.

Mr. SOKOLSKI: I know for drama purposes we need to have yes and no, but as a result of talking in the waiting room with George Perkovich…

NEARY: You've been convinced?

Mr. SOKOLSKI: He's been convinced of a lot of the points I've made. He's smiling and blushing. You know, policy is about situations. I think it's been already a bit of an embarrassment that this news story was leaked, that the Hill wasn't briefed, that they've played hide and seek on this.

And I think the reason why there are concerns about this deal is this is not a new idea. This is a very old idea. In fact, my center, along with others, promoted this idea six years ago. But at that time we had strict conditions that this material would not be reprocessed. We had strict conditions that all the money would be used to dismantle the remaining nuclear weapons that are in Russia. We had strict conditions that none of this revenue would go to make more nuclear weapons.

Whether or not and if any of those conditions will apply is an open game. Also, at that time, Russia had not misbehaved as patently as it had on liberal self-rule, on not accounting for nuclear weapons material, on Iran, on coercing the Ukraine. Now it has.

So the idea and the policy was always there that we would try to do the spent fuel gambit with them, but we expected them to behave. Now they've misbehaved. We have in fact retreated to try to please them on Iran on a number of fronts. We're now talking about, well, they can have the light water reactors. Well, you know, it's okay that they actually make feed material for enrichment. We've done this all on the behest of the Russians.

And now this policy effort that was supposed to be secret and kept secret and announced at the St. Petersburg meeting of the G-8 gets out and the administration has had to scramble to defend itself and what it's doing. And the reason simply is this: do you, after having retreated and having, you know, seen all of this misbehavior then throw out an incentive and say, well that's how we will get them turned around?

A lot of people on the Hill, I think, are wary of this.

NEARY: Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Mr. Sokolski, let me just ask you this. We are at the beginning of a process which, as we heard earlier from David Sanger, could take a long time. So the announcement really is that a negotiation is about to begin so couldn't all those concerns that you raised be dealt with during the course of a negotiation for this agreement?

Mr. SOKOLSKI: I would expect that the pressure to change the nature of the negotiation, to get focused much more on what the conditions will be, will be a result of more radio programs like this and Hill attention. There's going to be a lot of legislation that's going to be must pass legislation. There's an election cycle. I would be very, very curious to see what goes on some of that legislation.

There could be statements of general principle and requirements from nuclear cooperation in general that get thrown on as riders. So with regard to Congress, it can be influential. It'll have to decide if it wants to. And the Indian Nuclear Cooperation effort, I'll be honest, I don't think they chose to be very influential.

This is a little different. I'll tell you what I think politically is different. Besides the history, where you clearly have a pattern of things getting worse with regard to Russia, not better or unclear, as in the case of India, you also have a lot of built up emotion, particularly amongst conservatives, that Russia hasn't turned out as well as they'd like.

I think you didn't have that in the Indian debate. So this could be different. I mean, it's still unclear and I think a lot will depend on what happens.

NEARY: I want to see if we can get one more call in before you have to leave. We're going to Cole and he is in Minneapolis. Hi, Cole.

COLE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

NEARY: Go ahead.

COLE: My question is, what exactly is all that bad about having a little more plutonium? As far as I know, the spent fuel rods from uranium reactors are 95 percent recyclable and the remaining amount is only radioactive for a small portion of the time that the current fuel rods are.

We already have plutonium, so what's the big concern?

NEARY: Alright. I'm going to ask my guest if you could listen off - thank you for your call. We just have a couple of minutes later, so if you could take that question, Henry Sokolski.

Mr. SOKOLSKI: One bomb could ruin your entire afternoon. Every large fuel rod has a bomb's worth of plutonium in it. And while that's only five kilograms, that's enough to produce a Hiroshima-sized explosion or more. So it also turns out to be incredibly costly to use that as fuel as compared to just making fresh uranium fuel rods.

So you've got to be slightly craven to go in this direction. As for the benefits of playing with this stuff, to store it, it really is a pipe dream to think that you're simplifying yourself and your efforts to store material by opening it up and playing with it.

It's kind of like saying if we open up a big vat of tar and get our hands in it and play around with it, somehow we can make it a little bit easier to handle. It's very tough stuff.

NEARY: And just quickly, with just a minute to go, George Perkovich, if you…

Dr. PERKOVICH: I would just add to this, the problem about making plutonium seem normal and the use of plutonium seem normal is that over time - and we're talking about decades, if not longer - other countries are going to come along and they're going to say, gee, you guys are doing it. Everybody's doing it. This what great civilizations do with their know-how and they're going to want to do it. And these are going to be countries that we're going to be afraid are going to want to make nuclear bombs and we're going to want to them to stop.

NEARY: George Perkovich is the vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. We were also joined by Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. And David Sanger, a New York Times White House correspondent. Thanks to all of you for being with us.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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