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former IAEA Director-General

Russia, Iran Sign Deal to Fuel Bushehr Reactor
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Paul Kerr

Iran and Russia have concluded a revised schedule for Russia to fuel a light-water nuclear power reactor that a Russian contractor is constructing near the Iranian city of Bushehr.

According to Sergey Shmatko, head of the Russian contractor for the project, the two countries signed an agreement Sept. 26 providing that Russia would deliver the low-enriched uranium fuel for the reactor by March 2007, RIA Novosti reported. The reactor is to begin operating in September 2007 and begin providing energy two months later.

In February 2005, the two countries concluded an agreement to supply fuel for the reactor for a period of 10 years. At that time, Alexander Rumyantsev, then-director of the Russian Federal Agency for Atomic Energy, said the reactor would begin operating in late 2006, with the fuel to be delivered about six months earlier. (See ACT, April 2005.)

However, the project has since been delayed. Although Russian officials have characterized the delays as resulting from technical issues, officials from other countries have said that foot-dragging also has likely played a role. Iranian officials for their part have expressed frustration with the pace of the reactor construction. According to the official Islamic Republic News Agency, Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who also heads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told reporters Sept. 25 that the delays were caused by technical issues as well as incompetence on the part of the Russian contractor.

The project has encountered repeated delays since Russia agreed in 1995 to finish the reactor. The original German contractor abandoned the project following Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

The September agreement came as Russia and five other countries were attempting to persuade Iran to resume negotiations designed to resolve international concerns about its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program, which the United States believes to be part of a nuclear weapons program. Tehran contends that the program is meant to produce fuel for other future nuclear reactors.

Subsequently, Tehran’s failure to meet an October deadline for resuming negotiations prompted the UN Security Council to take up discussions again on a resolution that would take punitive actions against Iran.

The resolution could affect the fuel-delivery schedule, but Russian officials have repeatedly said that Moscow intends to move ahead with the reactor.

For example, the current head of Russia’s atomic energy ministry, Sergei Kiriyenko, indicated during an early September interview with Reuters that the project was not linked to the other Iranian nuclear issues. “As long as the plant does not violate nonproliferation requirements…there will be no obstacles,” he said. Additionally, Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov said that Moscow “will fulfill all its obligations” with respect to the project, RIA Novosti reported Oct. 3.

Nevertheless, U.S. and European officials have told Arms Control Today that they believe Moscow is pressuring Tehran by slowing work on the project. Press reports have indicated that work has slowed, but Russia has not explicitly linked the project’s pace to Iran’s compliance with UN demands. (See ACT, May 2006.)

The United States had previously urged Russia to end work on the project. But U.S. officials said in 2002 that Washington would drop its public objections if Moscow took steps, such as requiring Iran to return the spent fuel to Russia, to mitigate the project’s proliferation risks.

The 2005 deal includes such a provision, designed to reduce the risk that Iran will separate plutonium from the spent fuel. Separated plutonium can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons. Tehran does not have a known facility for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to obtain plutonium, although it has conducted related experiments.

Russia also contends that the reactor will not pose a proliferation risk because it will operate under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Agency safeguards agreements require states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to allow the agency to monitor their declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military use.