Putin Predicts Summer Start for Iranian Reactor

Peter Crail

In a statement that triggered a public dispute with the United States, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said last month Russia would help Iran’s first nuclear power plant begin operations this summer. The March 18 announcement, made during a Russian nuclear industry conference, coincided with a visit to Russia by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who criticized the move.

“I think it would be premature to go forward with any project at this time, because we want to send an unequivocal message to the Iranians,” Clinton said in response to a question during a March 18 joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “If [Iran] reassures the world, or if its behavior is changed because of international sanctions, then they can pursue peaceful, civil nuclear power,” she said.

The United States is currently pressing for a fourth UN sanctions resolution in response to Iran’s nuclear program. Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley appeared to link concerns over the reactor start-up to that effort, telling reporters March 18 that Clinton’s concern was not about Russia, but “the potential for a mixed message as we are working to put pressure on Iran.”

The UN sanctions restricting the export of most nuclear-related goods and technology to Iran exempt such transfers if they are “for exclusive use in light water reactors,” in order to allow assistance with the Bushehr reactor to continue.

At the March 18 press conference, Lavrov defended Russia’s work on the reactor, which has been under construction since 1995 and undergone years of delays. He said the Bushehr project played an important role in promoting Iran’s cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and “ensuring that Iran is complying with its nonproliferation obligations.” Lavrov did not explain what this role was. All declared Iranian nuclear facilities, including the Bushehr facility, are under IAEA safeguards.

The exchange appeared to resurrect a once-contentious issue that Moscow and Washington largely resolved in 2005. At that time, the United States said it would drop its public objections if Moscow took steps to address U.S. proliferation concerns about the reactor, former State Department officials told Arms Control Today last month.

In particular, those concerns stemmed from the risk that Iran could separate plutonium for weapons use from the reactor’s spent fuel.

In 2003 testimony to the House International Relations Committee, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton said Iran could produce “over 80 nuclear weapons” after operating the reactor for five to six years. Producing the weapons would require a reprocessing facility to separate plutonium from the spent fuel. Iran has carried out reprocessing experiments in the past but is not known to currently have a reprocessing capability.

U.S. officials had also expressed concern that Russia’s nuclear assistance would provide Iran with expertise and dual-use technology that could benefit a nuclear weapons program. (See ACT, April 2005.)

In February 2005, Russia took a key step toward alleviating the concern about the potential misuse of Bushehr’s spent fuel, announcing it had concluded an agreement with Iran to provide fuel for the reactor with the condition that it would be returned to Russia after it was used and sufficiently cooled. The arrangement would also mean that Iran would not need to enrich uranium to fuel that reactor, removing one of the justifications Iranian officials had given for their controversial uranium-enrichment program. Light-water reactors such as the one constructed at Bushehr are regarded as more proliferation resistant than other types as they do not produce weapons-grade plutonium as readily during normal operations.

Since then, the United States has generally supported the Bushehr project, holding it up as a model that would allow Iran to pursue its peaceful nuclear energy aspirations without investing in the costly and proliferation-sensitive technologies of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. Speaking to reporters on Dec. 18, 2007, shortly after Russia delivered the first shipment of fuel for the reactor, President George W. Bush said he supported Moscow’s provision of fuel for Iran’s nuclear power program. “If the Iranians accept that uranium for a civilian power plant, then there’s no need for them to learn how to enrich,” he said.

The fuel shipments were completed in January 2008 and have been kept under IAEA seal since then.

The 2005 policy shift to accept the Bushehr reactor followed a debate within the Bush administration as to how to approach the issue. According to the former officials, the debate was largely between those with responsibilities for nonproliferation, such as Bolton, who continued to object to Russia’s construction of the reactor, and the State Department’s regional bureau and its allies, who argued that it could serve as a model for Iran’s civilian nuclear program.

One former official said of the debate, “That’s no surprise, and not particular to the Bush administration; the two sides were reflecting their natural positions.”

The summer start-up of the reactor announced by Putin follows years of slipping timelines for when the reactor would be completed and begin operations. Russia had long maintained that those delays were due to technical problems and missed Iranian payments, but it is widely believed that Moscow has intentionally delayed the project due to concerns about Iran’s nuclear intentions. Construction of the reactor was completed last year.

After another estimated date for starting reactor operations announced by Russian and Iranian officials passed at the end of 2009, Russian nuclear energy corporation chief Sergey Kiriyenko told reporters in January that “2010 is the year of Bushehr,” adding that “[t]here is absolutely no doubt that it will be built this year.”

More recently, officials from Atomstroyexport, the Russian state firm responsible for the reactor work, have given a more definitive time frame. The Russian news service RIA Novosti quoted Atomstroyexport Vice President Timur Bavlakov as saying March 24, “The start-up of the Bushehr nuclear power plant is planned for August.”

This would appear to come after the expected time frame for additional UN sanctions. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said during a March 14 press briefing he believed it was possible to agree on a resolution by June.