Russia’s relations with the “near abroad” – those countries it considers directly under its sphere of influence and manipulation – is a relic of the country’s long history of buffering the heartland from external threats through conquered vassal states. The Russian Federation’s nuclear cooperation with Iran, epitomized by the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran, is no different.
Scratch beneath the surface of the Bushehr project and you soon encounter dysfunctionality and safety concerns that echo back to Russia’s own nuclear facilities, which include 11 Chernobyl-type reactors operating to this day, 26 years after the accident. An even closer look lays bare a smoldering core of safety problems – problems that go largely unnoticed because international attention is so often focused on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons development efforts.
To understand just how dangerous things have become at the plant, it’s worth going back to when Iran’s nuclear power aspirations began, in 1974, when Germany’s Siemens Kraftwerk Union (KWU) was contracted to construct two turnkey 1,200 MWe pressurized water reactors. Construction began the next year, and completion was scheduled for 1981. Soon after Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the project was cancelled, but abruptly restarted a few years later. KWU then abandoned the project in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war, and when faced with an international embargo against the transfer of sensitive nuclear technologies.
Russia agreed to take over completion of KWU-designed Unit-1 in 1992, and construction started in 1995. But Moscow soon abandoned completion work on the reactor to propose its own design, essentially restarting the project from scratch. Another blow came in March 1998, when Ukraine reneged, largely under pressure from the United States, on its TurboAtom subcontract with the Russians to supply two turbine-generators to Bushehr.
The checkered history of the plant has continued ever since, with significant construction delays and safety concerns plaguing Bushehr. Russia, of course, continues to insist that it’s merely fulfilling its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to provide peaceful nuclear technology to non-nuclear signatories (although the economic rationale for an oil-rich country like Iran to operate a nuclear power reactor is strained at best). But the highly-anticipated International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, released on November 8, 2011, undercut this view, expressing concern over military links to Iran’s civilian nuclear power program and the development of nuclear weapons.
The IAEA report noted unease over the recent installation of advanced centrifuges at Iran’s underground Fordow site (near the holy city of Qom) to cut uranium enrichment time, itself an indication that the Stuxnet computer virus was unable to shut down fully the Iranian enrichment initiative. Uncharacteristically blunt in its language, the IAEA also said it believed there might be a link between nuclear material enrichment and the modification missile delivery systems, and that it is increasingly concerned:
“…about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency continues to receive new information.”
Yet at the end of 2009, in the face of all evidence to the contrary and even as Iran was acquiring uranium enrichment technologies, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeniy Primakov asserted that Iran had no nuclear weapons program. Why? Well for a start Russia is ever eager to sell nuclear reactors abroad. When Bushehr was first connected to the grid at the beginning of September, Russia began to push for a revival of talks between the West and Iran regarding its uranium enrichment facilities. This is because Russia is also eager to sell Iran its own fuel to power Bushehr, which means any future reactors designed and constructed by Russia will burn their fuel: indigenous Iranian enrichment and fabrication capacity would cut into a lucrative nuclear fuel supply contract.
There are supposedly no plans currently for the construction of more reactor units, but Russia’s nuclear economic aspirations are clear – and this raises some troubling points.