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– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Bushehr Fuel Loading Commences
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Peter Crail

Following decades of construction delays, Russian and Iranian technicians began loading Russian-provided fuel for Iran’s first nuclear power reactor, at Bushehr, Aug. 21. The critical step kicks off the initial stages of the reactor’s operations, which are covered by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The reactor is scheduled to begin producing electricity in the coming months.

Iranian officials characterized the move as an act of defiance against Western pressure. “Resistance of the Iranian nation…led to the completion of the Bushehr power plant project,” said Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Ali Akbar Salehi in an Aug. 21 ceremony marking the fuel loading.

Although the United States opposed Russia’s construction of the plant for many years, Washington dropped its opposition in 2005 after Moscow secured an agreement from Tehran to return the spent fuel from the reactor to Russia. (See ACT, April 2010.) The 2005 arrangement helped to address U.S. concerns that Iran might reprocess the spent fuel to produce plutonium for weapons.

Under normal operations, light-water reactors (LWRs) such as the Bushehr plant do not produce plutonium of a quality appropriate for nuclear weapons. The reactor operations can be adjusted to produce better-quality plutonium, but such activities would be detectable by IAEA inspectors because they would entail shutting down the reactor very early.

In order to separate plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel, Iran would need a reprocessing capability, which it is not known to have. Moreover, Iran is currently constructing a heavy-water reactor at Arak that is far more suited to weapons-grade plutonium production.

Since 2005, U.S. officials have characterized the Bushehr plant as a model for Iran’s nuclear program, highlighting that Tehran’s arrangement for fueling the plant means that Iran does not need to enrich its own uranium.

Russia’s support for Bushehr underscores that Iran does not need an indigenous enrichment capability if its intentions are purely peaceful,” Agence France-Presse quoted Department of State spokesman Darby Holladay as saying Aug. 21.

The Bushehr reactor operates on uranium fuel enriched to about 4 percent of the fissile isotope uranium-235, the same isotope that, in high concentrations, can be used in nuclear weapons.

Russia has agreed to fuel the reactor for at least 10 years, providing both the enrichment and the fuel fabrication. Iran clams that it is enriching uranium to ensure that the Bushehr plant, as well as other reactors it intends to construct, have long-term fuel supplies. The proprietary specifications for fabricating the Bushehr plant’s fuel are owned by the Russian state-owned nuclear conglomerate Rosatom. A Russian diplomat said in April 2009 that he doubted that Rosatom provided the specifications to Iran to make this fuel. (See ACT, May 2009.)

In an apparent attempt to address its inability to fabricate the Bushehr fuel itself, Iran has proposed a joint Iranian-Russian consortium do so in Iran. “We have made a proposal to Russia to create a consortium under Russian license to do part of the work in Russia and part in Iran,” Salehi told Tehran’s state-owned Press TV Aug. 26.

Responding to the fuel-loading process, Israel criticized Iran’s ability to benefit from nuclear energy while it shirked nonproliferation obligations. “It is totally unacceptable that a country that so blatantly violates resolutions of the Security Council, decisions of the International Atomic Energy Agency and its commitments under the NPT [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] should enjoy the fruits of using nuclear energy,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Levy said in an Aug. 21 statement.

All non-nuclear-weapon states that are parties to the NPT must subject their nuclear activities to IAEA inspection and not seek nuclear weapons. A recent State Department report on compliance with international arms control agreements found Iran to be in noncompliance with its IAEA safeguards and to have been in violation of its NPT commitment not to seek nuclear weapons, at least in the past (see page 41).

Although UN Security Council sanctions prohibit the transfer of nuclear goods and technology to Iran, they allow exemptions for assistance related to LWRs. Russia sought the exemption to allow continued work on the Bushehr plant.

Complicated Construction History

Construction of the Bushehr plant has taken place on and off for the past 35 years, by two different countries, and under two different Iranian governments.

Germany’s Kraftwerk Union (KWU) began construction of two reactors at Bushehr in 1975 under commission by the shah. Following Iran’s 1979 revolution, the new Islamic government discontinued payments. The German firm then backed out of the contract, leaving the first reactor nearly completed and the second only partially built. The eight-year Iran-Iraq war prevented KWU from reviving the project during the 1980s, as the plant was repeatedly targeted by Iraqi air strikes.

After the end of its war with Iraq and in the midst of increasingly strained relations with the West, Iran sought new partners to finish the project. Moscow agreed to take over construction of the first reactor in 1992 with work beginning three years later, but this effort has suffered repeated delays.

Russian officials have publicly cited technical and financial reasons for the setbacks, but diplomatic sources have said that Moscow held up construction to place pressure on Iran over its nuclear program as well.

Russian officials now cite the start-up of the Bushehr plant as an example of Moscow’s good faith. “Physical launch of Bushehr nuclear plant confirms Russia lives up to its commitments,” said Rosatom head Sergey Kiriyenko during an Aug. 21 press briefing with Salehi.

Nuclear Negotiations to Restart

Meanwhile, U.S., European, and Iranian officials have said that negotiations on the nuclear issue are set to resume this fall. Such talks, officials say, will be pursued on two tracks. One track entails broad discussions on Iran’s nuclear program between Tehran and the so-called P5+1—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany. The other track addresses a fuel-swap arrangement, proposed last year by the United States, which would send a portion of Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile out of the country in return for fuel for a medical reactor. (See ACT, November 2009.)

Russian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin told reporters Aug. 3 that “useful exchanges” are taking place to restart talks and that “both tracks have promise in bringing about a diplomatic and political solution.”

According to recent press reports, President Barack Obama told a group of reporters Aug. 4 that following the recent series of sanctions Washington has pursued over the last several months, the United States would renew its diplomatic engagement with Iran. “It is very important to put before the Iranians a clear set of steps that we would consider sufficient to show that they are not pursuing nuclear weapons,” he said, according to the The New York Times.

Iran has signaled its readiness for the dual-track discussions. “We are ready for both talks, and as soon as we receive the final details from the other side, such as the date and venue, we will start,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters Aug. 24.

However, Tehran has repeatedly given mixed signals on a key issue in the fuel-swap discussions: Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20 percent. The P5+1 has insisted that Iran must halt the production of 20 percent uranium, which is closer to weapons-grade enrichment, as part of any fuel-swap deal.

The Iranian parliament approved a bill July 18 urging the government to continue 20 percent enrichment. Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted Aug. 20 in an interview with Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper as saying, “We promise to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent purity if we are ensured fuel supply” for the medical reactor.