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Stopping Bushehr reactor operation today will not change Irans military nuclear project timetable even by one day

Bushehr, After All INSS Insight No. 202, August 25, 2010
Magen, Zvi and Asculai, Ephraim

August 21, 2010 marked the official inauguration in Bushehr of Iran’s first
nuclear power plant, which was built by Russia. It seems that this event
finally put an end to the drawn-out ordeal, which in recent years has been
used as leverage for international pressure on Iran and has been riddled
with question marks. The plant’s inauguration was marked by a celebratory
ceremony attended by Iran’s vice president and head of its atomic energy
organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, and the head of Russia’s atomic agency
(ROSATOM), Sergei Kiriyenko. The operation of loading the 163 nuclear fuel
rods from Russia began in advance of the ceremony, thereby launching the
preparatory stage for the plant’s start-up, which is slated to take place in
late September 2010.

The establishment of power reactors in Bushehr to generate electricity was
begun already under the shah, apparently part of a grand plan that included
the option to produce nuclear weapons. The reactors were supposed to be
erected by a number of foreign companies; the first pair of reactors were
under construction by the German company KWU at the fall of the shah’s
regime. The first reactor, begun in 1974, was 85 percent complete at the
time of the revolution, but construction stopped entirely. Iraq bombed the
reactors’ center a number of times during the war with Iran. At the end of
the war, the German company refused to continue construction and Iran was
forced to find another country that would be willing to continue the

Iran saw the continuation of the development as a prestigious goal, though
on the face of it there was no economic justification for the erection of
power reactors in Iran, due to the abundance of oil to generate electricity
as well as the massive investment required. In 1995, Russia signed contracts
with Iran agreeing to complete the construction of the first two reactors by
installing Russian-type VVER-1000 reactors in the original buildings that
had survived from the shah era. These are large reactors, as any smaller
reactors would not be economically worthwhile in light of today’s
technology. It was clear, though, that fundamental changes to the buildings
would be necessary since the Russian reactors were too big for the German
infrastructure. The first contract with a company called Atomstroiexport was
for the sum of $800 million. Upon operation, the reactor is estimated to
produce 915 megawatts of electricity. As in every non-standard project, the
erection of the reactor took much longer than expected and cost considerably
more than the original estimate. After lengthy deliberations, Iran signed a
contract with Russia for the supply of nuclear fuel to the reactor, whereby
Iran must return the irradiated fuel to Russia. The purpose of this contract
is to ensure Iran a supply of fuel, which it does not (yet) have the
capability to produce on its own, and to ensure that the said fuel will not
be used to produce plutonium on Iranian soil. Russia began supplying the
fuel to Iran in December 2007. The loading of the fuel into the reactor,
begun on August 21, 2010, followed charges from the West that the reactor
might be used for military purposes.

The Bushehr reactor is a PWR type, or Pressurized Water Reactor, which uses
approximately 4 percent enriched uranium fuel. After being irradiated in the
reactor, the fuel can indeed produce plutonium, but under normal operation
this material would not be of adequate quality to be used in a nuclear
weapon. Even if it was decided that plutonium should be produced from the
fuel, this task would require a large scale reprocessing facility, as well
as additional processing facilities.

If Iran were entirely credible, there would be little concern, as the fuel
would be used for the sole purpose of operating the reactor and then be
exported from Iran, with no way to use it to produce plutonium. However, it
is possible under certain conditions to operate the reactor in such a way
that the plutonium created by the fuel would be of military grade and thus
be suitable for nuclear weapons. Another option is that the Iranians would
begin to produce the fuel for the reactor on their own. In this case, other
than their obligations to the safeguards agreement with the IAEA and the
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran will have no external
obligations for the supply of the nuclear fuel. Yet in any event, there are
at least a number of years until Iran can begin to produce plutonium, even
from the Russian fuel if the relevant agreements are not honored.

As it appears today, the route of developing nuclear weapons runs through
uranium enrichment facilities and enriching uranium to a military level. At
the same time, Iran is erecting a smaller reactor whose main purpose, or so
it seems, is to produce military-grade plutonium. Only in the event that
these routes will no longer be an option will Iran possibly resort to using
the Bushehr reactor as a source of fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Stopping the Bushehr reactor’s operation today will not change the military
nuclear project’s timetable even by one day.

Russia’s declaration of its intentions to begin loading nuclear fuel into
the nuclear power reactors on August 21 was accompanied by a series of
Russian, American, and Iranian statements. Russia publicized a number of
statements justifying its decision, claiming that not only does the plant
not strengthen Iran’s nuclear plans, it actually aids in halting them by
demonstrating that Iran has no need to produce its own enriched uranium.
Russia emphasized that the plant will operate under the IAEA verification
systems and that the international community, i.e., the “sextet” in general
and the United States specifically, do not oppose its operation in practice.
In addition, thousands of Russian experts are at the site and will guide the
plant’s operation in its early stages.

In the United States, a few statements were made (by the White House and the
State Department) claiming the Bushehr plant is not part of a military
nuclear program. Rather, the plant proves that Iran has no need for enriched
uranium and thus continued uranium enrichment would necessarily be intended
for military purposes. Some outside the administration expressed opposing
views, identified the plant as a component within a larger military nuclear
plan, and called for an immediate attack on it.

For its part, Iran hurried to announce it had no intention of stopping its
nuclear plans and was preparing for twenty similar reactors in the future (a
ludicrous claim even to the Russians). Vice President Ali Salehi also took
the opportunity to announce the establishment of an additional power
station, the third in number, which will begin in 2011. The Iranian
propaganda, however, was somewhat muted on the opening day.

The Russian decision to launch the nuclear power plant in Bushehr at this
time was not a given. Russia recently withdrew its steady support of Iran,
including defense of its nuclear plans in light of international pressure,
and endorsed international sanctions; indeed, it seemed that in light of the
sanctions Russia would continue to drag its feet in loading the Bushehr
plant (and there is no lack of “technical” excuses to do so). There is also
the understanding between Russia and the United States on the Iranian issue
as part of the “reset” program for cooperation in the international arena,
as well as Russia’s pained response to the “Tehran Agreement” (the
Iranian-Turkish-Brazilian agreement to transfer the enriched uranium out of
Iran). Since then, Russian-Iranian tension has been high, accompanied by the
Iran’s fiery rhetoric, and Russia has labored with the “sextet” to annul the
Tehran agreement.

Two conditions had to exist for the Russians to decide to begin the
operation of the Bushehr plant specifically at the present time.

a. An agreement, or at least a quiet understanding, with the United
States. Otherwise, from Russia’s standpoint, we are looking at a violation
of the sanctions policy as well as a breach in the Russian-American
cooperation developed under the “reset” program, which is a valuable program
for Russia.

b. An arrangement, or at least an understanding, with the Iranians.
Otherwise, why would Russia give such a valuable gift as the operation of a
nuclear reactor amid a policy of sanctions against them? There can only be
one reason for this surprising explanation: the return of the
Russian-Iranian mutual understanding and an attainment of some sort of
arrangement regarding Iranian uranium, this time in Russia’s favor.

In recent years Russia continued its two-faced game in relation to Iran in
general and to its nuclear program in particular. The recent reversal was
Russia’s support of the United States on the issue of sanctions against Iran
in exchange for vital American concessions to Russia. Now it seems that
Russia is signaling to Iran its intentions to support it at the same time.
The open question that remains is this: Is Russia returning to its two-faced
policy and in doing so, attaining an upgraded international status? Or are
we looking at a coordinated process, only at whose end will we be notified
about Iran’s ultimate direction.

The Institute for National Security Studies . 40 Haim Levanon St. . Tel
Aviv 61398 . Israel . e-mail:

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