By Aaron Beitman Contributor February 15, 2010

Following the tense aftermath of the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008, the Obama administration has taken concrete steps to “reset” relations with the Russian Federation. However, substantive action remains to be realized in a number of key areas, including civil nuclear energy cooperation. Presidents Obama and Medvedev have affirmed that “the safe use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” remains a priority. To continue recent warming in U.S.-Russia relations, the Obama administration should re-submit the crucial U.S.-Russia Agreement on Civil Nuclear Cooperation (or the “123 Agreement”) for Congressional approval. Benefits of strong U.S.-Russia civil nuclear cooperation include shared technical expertise, the right for Russia to receive U.S.-origin nuclear materials, and greater leverage over Iran’s nuclear program.


Agreements for civil nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and other states are known as 123 Agreements in reference to Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954. The Agreements provide authorization and a framework for cooperation, but they do not guarantee select types of nuclear exports, especially technology and sensitive materials. The United States currently has roughly two dozen 123 Agreements with states such as China, India, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates. Russia is the only Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory with which the United States has not concluded an agreement.

Completion of the 123 Agreement was within sight shortly before the August 2008 Russia-Georgia War. On May 6, 2008, U.S. and Russian representatives signed the 123 Agreement, which President Bush then submitted to Congress for approval. Congressional opinion on the agreement was mixed, but implementing legislation, titled H.R. 6574, was reported out of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on July 23, 2008. After the shock of the Russo-Georgia War, President Bush withdrew his prior support of the treaty’s approval and Congressional consideration ceased.


The United States and Russia have found ways to cooperate on civil nuclear energy issues, even without a finalized 123 Agreement. Localized deals, such as the Megatons to Megawatts program, which allows for deliveries of Russian low-enriched uranium to U.S. disposal facilities, demonstrate the possibility of increased U.S.-Russia cooperation.

Both Russia and the United States stand to gain from increased technical cooperation. Specifically, shared research and expertise on advanced reactors, development of improved safety and non-proliferation requirements for small- and medium-sized reactors, and improved monitoring, control, and accounting technologies would be mutually beneficial.

Approval of the 123 Agreement would also legalize transfers of U.S.-origin spent fuel from third parties to Russia. This could not only provide Russia with nearly $20 billion in storage fees from states lacking permanent nuclear waste disposal facilities, but also relieve states of a treacherous political problem.

After Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities were revealed during the Bush administration, Russia increased cooperation with U.S.-led efforts to put pressure on Iran. Though Russia’s support of Iran’s nuclear program has continued to be problematic, the Kremlin remains in a unique position to exert influence on Iran. Arguably, a stronger nuclear partnership with the United States will encourage convergence of U.S. and Russian priorities. To this end, one senior Bush administration official suggested that U.S. action on the 123 Agreement “had a definite and positive impact on the way Russia came to regard certain nonproliferation issues and to take steps to deal with them.”


Partnership with Russia is not without its pitfalls. Approval of the 123 Agreement without careful consideration of linked issues, such as aggressive Russian behavior in the former Soviet Union and the use of energy as a political weapon, may send Russia the wrong message. Moreover, a few outstanding issues directly related to the 123 Agreement should not be overlooked. For one, Russia has been reluctant to fully disclose its past activities in support of Iran’s nuclear program. Second, Russia lacks appropriate liability protection for commercial nuclear activities, which presents a serious obstacle to U.S. companies conducting commercial nuclear business in Russia. And finally, indications that Russia may continue to prevent foreign competitors from entering its domestic nuclear market remain troubling.


Previous U.S. cooperation with Russia has borne fruit. There are incentives for influencing states by including them in bilateral and multilateral frameworks. Accordingly, the Obama administration should resubmit the 123 Agreement to Congress in order to realize the benefits of increased technical cooperation, legalized transfer of U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel to Russia, and gain greater leverage over Iran’s nuclear program. In order to ease approval and satisfy some Congressional concerns, the administration should clarify U.S. interagency procedures for developing, reviewing, and transmitting 123 Agreements. Combined with sustained efforts at engaging Russia on Iran in international forums, progress on the 123 Agreement will demonstrate the Obama administration’s commitment to civil nuclear energy leadership and improved relations with Russia.

Aaron Beitman is a 2009 graduate of Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program. He has spent a year in southern Brooklyn’s Russian-speaking community for the City Council of New York and worked on foreign policy issues in U.S. Senator Russ Feingold’s office.