updated 5/6/2008 9:40:00 AM ET 2008-05-06T13:40:00

Russia and the U.S. signed a key agreement on civilian nuclear power Tuesday that will give Washington access to Moscow's nuclear technology and potentially hand Russia lucrative deals on storing spent nuclear fuel.

U.S. Ambassador William Burns and Russia's top nuclear official, Sergei Kiriyenko, signed the deal the day before Dmitry Medvedev succeeds Vladimir Putin as president.

Cooperation on nuclear issues between Russia and the U.S. had cooled in recent years because of disagreements over how to handle Iran's perceived nuclear threat.

The new agreement signed Tuesday will formally allow nuclear deals between U.S. and Russian companies. The U.S. has similar agreements with other major economic powers, including China.

The deal will give the U.S. access to Russian state-of-the art nuclear technology. That would be important for the United States, where nuclear development was virtually dormant in the wake of 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 developments in areas including fast-neutron reactors and recycling nuclear fuel.

Russia in turn will be able to achieve its goal of establishing an international nuclear fuel storage facility by importing and storing spent fuel. Russia cannot achieve the goal without signing the deal, since the U.S. controls the vast majority of the world's nuclear fuel.

World's nuclear dump?
The plans, however, have caused outrage among environmentalists and ordinary Russians, who fear that such a project would turn their country into the world's nuclear dump. Russian officials would have to overcome those objections to go ahead with the deal.

Work on the agreement got under way after Putin and President Bush pledged to increase cooperation in the field at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in 2006.

The Bush 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.

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