How Bad is Bushehr?
Image Credit: Iranian President's Office

How Bad is Bushehr?


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 In the past, Russian officials have cited late payments from Iranian clients, problems of integrating the outdated foreign equipment present at Bushehr with Russia’s own technologies, and other logistical problems for the frequent work stoppages.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.

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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.

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