Russia Outlines Plans for Five More Iranian Reactors, Stoking Weapons Programme Fears

Publish date: July 29, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

Russia has outlined plans to build five more nuclear reactors in Iran over the next decade, representing a sharp expansion of cooperation with Tehran and an apparent disregard for US concerns about the development of an atomic power infrastructure in the area.

The plans have also opened a new can of worms regarding the fate of the Iranian reactors’ spent nuclear fuel (SNF), which — despite Russia’s assurances that it will take spent fuel back — has given credence to speculation that the Kremlin’s nuclear assistance to Tehran could lead to a nuclear weapons program.

The plan for additional civilian reactors in Iran is bound to strain the closer ties between Moscow and Washington that were forged in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, diplomats in Russia said. And while the two countries lately have smoothed over most of their disputes, the late Friday announcement about the intended expansion of nuclear cooperation with Iran made it clear that, whatever other gains may be made between Russia and the United States, Iran is off limits as a topic of negotiation.

Russia has been constructing a 1,000-megawatt, light-water reactor for Iran at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf for years and has consistently refused to drop the $800 million project, insisting it will serve only civilian purposes. US officials and scientists familiar with fuel cycle technologies, however, fear that Russian assistance could make it easier for Iran to develop nuclear weapons, and have lobbied in vain to stop the venture.

Russia’s plan for five additional reactors was included in a broad 10-year blueprint for how to enhance economic, political and scientific ties with Iran, a document approved by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on Wednesday and released late Friday. Iranian and Russian officials have talked about building more reactors since 1996, but now the Russians have moved the idea closer to reality by enshrining the goal in a paper to be presented to Tehran in September.

The document signed Wednesday by Kasyanov suggested that three additional reactors could be built alongside the original one at Bushehr, which is slated to be operational by late 2003 or early 2004.

The document also confirmed a proposal for a second plant, at Ahvaz — about 100 kilometres from Iran’s border with Iraq — where two reactors could be built. All told, it would mean billions of dollars for Russia’s nuclear power industry.

No contracts have been signed with Iran yet, and given Russia’s sporadic construction record at Bushehr, no new reactors are likely in the near term. But the absence of a contract also suggests the absence of a legally binding plan about what will happen with the SNF from the reactors, Ivan Blokov, Greenpeace’s Campaign Director, told Bellona Web.

Indeed, it was only within the past two weeks that Greenpeace exposed in leaked government documents that Russia had no contract for repatriating SNF from Bushehr. Since that time, Russia’s Nuclear Minister Alexander Rumyantsev has issued repeated assurances that Bushehr SNF — which, when reprocessed, yields plutonium — will be sent back to Russia.

But Blokov said Rumyantsev’s assurances are based on nothing more than a “protocol of intent” which is not legally binding. “There is still no contract for the return of the SNF from Iran,” said Blokov.

A government official, speaking to Bellona Web on the condition of anonymity, confirmed this.

“The only reason we knew there was no plan for the SNF from the original Bushehr reactor is because internal documents were leaked to the press,” said the official. “The ‘protocol of intent’ means nothing in terms of repatriating the fuel.”

“It’s not even clear why Iran needs a nuclear reactor — to say nothing of five. They have oil, which is cheaper,” said Blokov.

“Secondly, the reactors that they are being given can produce materials to make an atomic bomb. The fact is that when they have their SNF [after five or six years of burning it in the first Bushehr reactor] they can easily reprocess it, and getting hold of equipment to do that is not that difficult — it’s a long-known open secret that delivering such equipment is not a problem,” he added.

The provocative nature of the Kremlin announcement was withheld for two days, with news of the official signing of the document delayed until Friday news broadcasts, after much of Moscow had left for their country dachas for the weekend. Then two plane crashes over the week — one at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport — virtually guaranteed no attention to the news on the part of the public.

The Iranian development came just a day after President Vladimir Putin hailed the new era of friendship with the West. “Russia has completely left the confrontational period in international relations, and the countries of the world can view Russia not only as a partner but also as an ally in resolving key problems of the present era,” he said Thursday at a ceremony accepting credentials of new ambassadors.

“The fact that Kasyanov signed something shows how much power the atomic lobby has in this country,” said Andrei Piontkovsky of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow.

“Five new reactors is going to be seriously irritating to the US.”

In Washington, Bush administration officials said Russian cooperation with Iran’s nuclear energy program would be on the agenda this week when Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham leads a US delegation to Russia to discuss energy and nuclear non-proliferation issues, the Associated Press reported.

“Our concerns with regard to Russian cooperation with Iran on the issue of Bushehr are well known,” AP quoted Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, as saying.

“We have expressed them in public as well as in private directly to Russian President Putin. And we will continue to work with Russia on non-proliferation issues of concern.”

After their summit in May, US President George Bush said Russian President Vladimir Putin had assured him that Russia would press Iran to allow extensive international inspections of the plant.

Iran has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has previously said it will cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which oversees the world’s civilian nuclear power programmes.

After Friday’s announcement, the chairman of the State Duma’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Dmitry Rogozin, said Russia’s plans should not hurt relations with the United States since Moscow shares Washington’s worries.

“Neither Russia nor the United States is interested in other countries’ use of peaceful nuclear technologies for military purposes,” he was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.

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