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US Discusses Civilian Nuclear Cooperation With Russia

Preliminary discussions are under way between the United States and Russia on a possible civilian nuclear deal. President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin could approve the start of formal negotiations when they meet on Friday in St. Petersburg, just prior to the Group of Eight Summit.

In public, Bush administration officials will only say that all sorts of issues are being discussed with the Russians before the summit.

The Number Two official at the State Department, Nicholas Burns, was asked about prospects for a civilian nuclear deal during an appearance on the Fox News Sunday television program.

"We are currently talking, in fact, right now talking in Europe today - Sunday - with the Russians about a variety of issues that we may or may not be able to agree on," said Nicholas Burns. "So, let us just see how successful those negotiations can be."

Burns would not go into specifics, except to say the United States wants to work with Russia to stem nuclear proliferation

"Certainly, we have an interest to work - as a nuclear power - to work with Russia, to try to limit the spread and proliferation of nuclear materials in the world," he said. "That is in the American national interest, and that should not surprise anyone."

Russia has worked with Iran's nuclear power industry, and, last year, offered to process and dispose of all uranium needed to fuel its power plants.

That plan was never put into place, and the stalemate between Iran and the international community over its nuclear program continues. But the Russian-Iranian negotiations underscored the key role Russia can play in efforts to resolve the dispute over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, a role the Bush administration clearly wants to encourage.

A deal that acknowledges Russia as a major repository of spent nuclear fuel and expands its position in the international nuclear power industry could be a major incentive.

But this kind of policy shift - reversing years of opposition to nuclear cooperation with the Russians - has opponents in the Senate.

Arizona Republican John McCain told CBS television's Face the Nation program, a nuclear deal now might be seen as a reward for bad behavior on the part of Moscow.

"It is time for some very tough talk with the Russians," said John McCain. "Mr. Putin is clearly on the path to the restoration of autocracy in Russia."

Appearing on the same news interview program, Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, said he shares those concerns, but feels, in the long run, a civilian nuclear deal with Russia may prove positive.

"So, I am more optimistic about it," said Christopher Dodd. "I do not disagree that we have to take a close look at it. But, I think, it could prove very worthwhile to us in the long term."

If a civilian nuclear agreement is reached, it will have to be approved by both Congress and the Russian Duma (parliament) before it can go into effect.