In loading rods containing 80 tonnes of low-enriched uranium fuel into the 1000-megawatt light-water reactor at Bushehr, Russia’s state-owned Rosatom nuclear corporation is launching Iran into an elite rank of countries possessing a civilian nuclear energy programme. But although Moscow’s move will likely result in Bushehr generating nuclear power by the end of this year, much of the considerable media criticism heaped on the move is in fact misplaced.
The fact is Iran won’t use the Bushehr nuclear reactor to manufacture nuclear weapons and at this point, the plant’s imminent start-up will contribute little to any ambitions Tehran might have in this regard. While the reactor’s operation will certainly enhance Iranians’ nuclear knowledge and experience, the real problem lies elsewhere—in Iran’s indigenous fuel-making activities, its unsafeguarded nuclear plants, and the likely existence of secret nuclear sites in Iran not under foreign supervision.
Russia has sought to leverage its role in Bushehr to discourage Tehran from pursuing nuclear weapons, and Iranians have complained for years about the construction delays at the plant. In the past, Russian officials have cited late payments from Iranian clients, problems of integrating the outdated foreign equipment present at Bushehr with Russia’s own technologies, and other logistical problems for the frequent work stoppages. Iranian representatives for their part dismissed such excuses, instead suggesting that Moscow has deliberately delayed the reactor’s start up to avoid antagonizing Western governments opposed to the project.
They’re probably right.
Since the disturbing revelations in 2002 and 2003 about the extent of Iran’s covert nuclear program, the Russian government has employed a mixture of engagement and pressure to constrain Iran’s nuclear activities. Despite Russian denials, this pressure has included slowing down construction at Bushehr—the main Russian carrot—and drawing out negotiations to provide Iran with fuel for the reactor, as well as Russia’s more publicized support for several UN Security Council resolutions that have criticized Iran’s nuclear activities and imposed sanctions on Tehran after Iranian officials ignored UN demands to suspend these activities.
To impede Iran from using Bushehr to advance any nuclear weapons ambitions, Russian negotiators adamantly insisted that Iran use Russian-made fuel for the reactor, rather than produce its own, and return the used fuel rods to Russia (such ‘spent’ fuel contains plutonium, which technicians can separate and use to manufacture nuclear weapons).
Meanwhile, Russian policymakers denied Iranian requests to purchase additional uranium enrichment technologies that Iran could use to produce its own fuel. Russian officials argued that since Russia was supplying fuel for Bushehr and is prepared to sell fuel for any other Iranian reactors, Iran had no need to make its own through nuclear enrichment. In addition to producing reactor fuel, uranium enrichment can be used to make the fissile material core needed to explode a nuclear warhead.
Although Russia began shipping uranium fuel to Iran’s Bushehr reactor in December 2007, Russian officials still argued that the deliveries meant that Iran had no logical economic reasons to make its own fuel since Russian suppliers would provide it, obviating Iran’s need to construct its own costly nuclear enrichment, storage, and reprocessing facilities. The Russian government cited this consideration when justifying voting in favour of four rounds of sanctions on Iran in the UN Security Council, including the latest resolution on June 9.
Russian officials have always insisted that their support for international efforts to induce Iran to end its nuclear enrichment activities is unrelated to their role in the Bushehr project, which they argue isn’t a proliferation threat since its activities are under the close supervision of Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). As part of the deal, Iran has placed the reactor under Agency safeguards, which allows the IAEA to monitor the facility’s operations through remotely controlled measuring sensors and closed-circuit cameras. IAEA experts can also conduct on-site inspections at Bushehr.
As part of the deal, Rosatom technicians will remain on-site for several more years to train the Iranians, and would almost certainly notice any misconduct. Russian officials have also warned Tehran that any Iranian attempt to misuse or seize control of the reactor facility to make bombs would lead to a break in relations. And anyway, even if it tried, Iran currently lacks the reprocessing technologies or training to separate the spent fuel into weapons-grade plutonium.
In recent years, most foreign governments, including both the Bush and Obama administrations, have come to accept the logic of Russia’s position. Although not enthusiastic about Bushehr, they now concur with Moscow that if Iranians are determined to possess a nuclear power reactor, then it would be best if it were built, supplied, and supervised by Russia rather than by the Iranians themselves. US officials have also supported Moscow’s proposals to allow Iranians to conduct limited uranium enrichment activities, provided they do so under international control at a multinational nuclear fuel centre in Russia or some other foreign country. Russia has reciprocated the Western concessions regarding Bushehr by freezing implementation of its contract to sell advanced S-300 air defence missiles to Iran and by voting for more stringent sanctions on Iran (which have been designed not to infringe on Russia’s ability to meet its Bushehr contract).
Iranian officials have rejected proposals to rely on Russian-made fuel or multinational nuclear fuel centres to supply their entire nuclear programme—they claim not to trust the international community to provide them with guaranteed fuel deliveries or assured access to such centres. From this, they argue they need to have their own independent nuclear fuel programme.
But regardless, Iran’s present enrichment capabilities and supply of uranium are insufficient to produce enough reactor fuel for Bushehr, although they’re adequate enough to make a few nuclear bombs. Iran is also constructing a heavy-water reactor at Arak in western Iran that, unlike the light-water reactor at Bushehr, doesn’t require enriched uranium to run and could more easily be used to make weapons-grade plutonium.
Ultimately, if Iran is intent on building a nuclear weapon, it won’t do it at Bushehr or other facilities like the Natanz enrichment facility that are under IAEA supervision. Instead, it will design and build an atomic bomb at some clandestine facility such as the one exposed last September near Qom. That enrichment complex is remote and deeply buried, shielding it from foreign surveillance satellites and possible air strikes. From an Iranian point of view, this makes much more sense.