Leaked Minatom Documents Show No Plan For Iranian SNF

Publish date: June 27, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

Russia's Ministry of Nuclear Energy, or Minatom, has failed to secure guarantees from Iran that Teheran will return spent nuclear fuel that could be converted into weapons-grade plutonium, despite repeated assurances to the contrary from Moscow.

Internal Russian government documents shown to Bellona this week prove that no agreement has been reached on the sensitive issue of how to handle the used nuclear fuel from a power station being built by Russia in Iran, which is to come into operation in a couple of years.

Moscow’s nuclear cooperation with Iran has become a heated subject between Russia and the United States — which accuses Iran of sponsoring terrorism — ever since Sept. 11, and the centre of this tension is the 1,000 megawatt Bushehr reactor located 800 kilometers south of Teheran.

According to Russian news reports, the surfacing of the leaked documents early this week caused Nuclear Minister Alexander Rumyantsev to publicly admit that the deal for the return of the Iranian spent nuclear fuel (SNF) was still in "negotiation" stages — forcing him to eat his words from a number of public television appearances and newspaper quotations where he had announced that the deal to ship SNF back to Russia from the Bushehr facility was sewn up.

The Kremlin and Minatom insist the Bushehr reactor is a mammoth venture, an $800 million — and supposedly civilian — nuclear power enterprise that adheres to international norms, brings home cash, and ensures close relations with the Islamic regime in Teheran. Minatom has said publicly and repeatedly that the risk of nuclear arms proliferation is non-existent and that the spent fuel is to be repatriated to Russia for storage or reprocessing.

In an interview earlier this month on Russian NTV channel’s popular program "Geroi Dnya," or Hero of the Day, Nuclear Minister Rumyantsev said: "We have agreed with Iran that the used fuel will be returned to Russia."

"This is fulfillment by Russia of our obligations on the non-proliferation of weapons-grade fissile materials," he added for a television audience of millions.

He made a similar declaration in November last year. But a paper among the confidential documents, written for the Kremlin by Minatom, flatly contradicts that assurance.

The paper states: "The question of managing the spent nuclear fuel is absent in the agreement between the governments of Russia and Iran on the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant on Iranian territory Negotiations are taking place on the return of the spent nuclear fuel to the Russian Federation."

Minatom’s press service, reached Thursday, confirmed that "negotiations were taking place," but refused to comment directly on the leaked documents, saying that any questions related to the Bushehr reactor project would have to be faxed to press officials, at which point they would be reviewed and possibly answered in 40 to 45 days.

The lack of an agreement about who gets the spent fuel suggests Iran is playing for time and may want to retain the SNF, which, when reprocessed, yields weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.

"Iran would be in possession of weapons-usable material, plutonium," said a US Government official, who requested anonymity. "For a country like Iran, it would not be difficult to reprocess the spent fuel and isolate the plutonium. It would be a matter of weeks, not months."

Despite top-level denials of wrongdoing from Moscow and Teheran, and piecemeal indications that Russia has refused several questionable Iranian requests in recent years, US officials interviewed by Bellona Web this week said that illicit technology and know-how transfers from Russian entities to Iran are continuing.

But the secretive world of nuclear and missile exports; the murky role of Russia’s security services, often vulnerable to bribery; and the desperation of Russia’s nuclear scientists — impoverished since the USSR’s fall — have created new risks. US concerns focus not on mishandling of nuclear materials at Bushehr — which are supposed to remain under internationally monitored Russian control — but on the possibility that Russian know-how will create a nucleus of Iranian experts who could apply new knowledge to a weapons program.

"The new generation of Russian nuclear experts may work in Iran, and may work on nuclear weapons, because their lives are too hard and they want money, money, money," Valentin Tikhonov, a Russian Academy of Sciences expert on non-proliferation, told Bellona Web this week.

"Most of these scientists can’t see the difference between working on civilian or war production — for them it doesn’t matter," Tikhonov said. "In these conditions it is difficult to speak about human values, about the dangers of their work. They only want to survive. It is a catastrophic situation." Most nuclear scientists in Russia, Tikhonov added, make less than $50 per month.

One Russian scientist, who has repeatedly travelled to Bushehr, told the Boston Globe late last month that Iran — under the guise of the power plant — is on the cusp of reaching its alleged weapons goals thanks to Russian help.

"So what?" the Russian scientist told the Boston Globe on the condition of anonymity. "The Iranians will acquire these weapons. Pakistan has them. Israel has them. Other countries have them. So what if Iran has them?"

The disclosure of the Minatom documents will undoubtedly increase broad trepidation about Russia’s determination to push ahead with the lucrative contracts for the Bushehr power plant, and reinforce US criticism of the project.

Despite the recent warming in relations between the White House and the Kremlin, Russia’s nuclear assistance to Iran — a country on the US list of "rogue states" — is one of the biggest irritants in the Russian-American relationship.

In February, President Vladimir Putin ordered Minatom to provide an "analysis" of Russia’s year-old plans to import nuclear waste, a project critics contend will turn Russia into the world’s nuclear dump.

The Russian parliament passed — under dubious circumstances and strong public opposition — three bills last year on the importation of nuclear waste and the analysis was required by the Kremlin for Putin to give the final go-ahead, probably within months.

Rumyantsev has acknowledged the dangers of the spent fuel remaining in Iranian hands. At a dinner in Washington last month he conceded that it was a "very sensitive issue," saying: "It is true that a nuclear power plant can become a source of proliferation once it has accumulated a certain amount of spent nuclear fuel," according to The Associated Press.

The documents Minatom sent to the Kremlin recognise that the Iranian connection could upset Rumyantsev’s plans to make Russia the world’s leading importer of nuclear waste, a scheme that could, his ministry has claimed — to widespread derision — earn Russia $20 billion over 10 years.

Aside from a long critical letter about Minatom’s spent fuel market analysis, written by Russia’s nuclear regulatory body Gozatomnadzor (GAN) — also released earlier this week — there is the fact that 70 to 90 percent of the world market in spent nuclear fuel is under the control of the United States, which has a commanding veto over what happens to that highly radioactive SNF.

For the Russian import scheme to work, America’s blessing is required. Russia needs a political agreement with the US for the nuclear imports plan to be feasible, the leaked documents state.

"For a long time now the US has been making the issue of such an agreement conditional on Russia refusing nuclear cooperation with Iran," the documents say.