US DOE Chief Arrives in Moscow Under Shadow of Expanded Nuke Plans in Iran

Publish date: July 31, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

A high power delegation of American energy officials arrived here Tuesday evening for talks with their Russian counterparts about a $20 billion deal to keep Soviet-era nuclear material safe from extremists, but those talks will take place under the cloud of Moscow's recently publicized plans to build five more reactors in Iran.

This visit by US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Undersecretary of State John Bolton was planned before Friday’s announcement by the Russian government of a 10-year plan to dramatically expand ties with Iran beyond its existing contract to complete a nuclear reactor for a power plant located in the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr.

In a document approved by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov last Wednesday — but withheld from the press until Friday — Russia plans to build two more reactors for Bushehr and three in the city of Ahvaz, located 100 kilometres from the Iraqi border.

Discussions of the plan are sure to dominate initial talks, scheduled for Wednesday, between Russian Nuclear Minister Alexander Rumyantsev and Secretary Abraham, officials here said. Originally, the two were to speak about the results of a joint US-Russian group addressing the problem of surplus stocks of weapons plutonium and high-enriched uranium (HEU) as well as issues related to spent nuclear fuel (SNF).

Washington has branded Iran as part of the “axis of evil” because of suspicions that it would use civilian nuclear schemes to develop atomic weapons. Israel views the Bushehr facility as a threat to its security, though Israeli experts rule out a military strike any time soon.

However, after mulling the issue over the weekend, the US White House played down the Russia-Iran blueprint prior to Abraham and Bolton’s visit, even though the Bushehr facility was a major bone of contention at a Moscow summit in May.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stalwart support of the US “war on terrorism” after the September 11 attacks on New York City’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon prompted unparalleled bilateral security cooperation, a new — though widely criticized — nuclear arms reduction treaty, and talk of greater trade, and earned Russia a permanent place in the elite G8 club of industrialized nations.

A kink in plans for aid

G8 leaders promised at their June summit in Canada some $20 billion over the next 10 years to help Russia dismantle weapons of mass destruction, part of a campaign to prevent terrorists from obtaining raw materials for a nuclear bomb.

But Moscow’s relations with Tehran, which include increased sales of potent Russian conventional weapons and work on oil and gas projects, could complicate efforts to put the landmark programme into effect.

Influential US analysts this month sought to neutralize the row by proposing Washington accept Moscow’s closer collaboration with Tehran in exchange for tougher verification of Iranian nuclear projects.

That included restricting future reactor construction to Bushehr, Iran’s acceptance of intrusive inspections, giving up other nuclear activities and repatriating spent fuel to Russia.

“The problem here is [that] the West, and specifically the United States, has used too much black paint on Iran with the ‘axis of evil’, so now they have to downplay this picture to be able to start thinking constructively,” said Boris Makarenko, deputy director of Moscow’s Centre for Political Technologies.

“What we really want to know is how big the differences are and whether both sides will allow this divisive issue to spoil their relationship or whether they will be wise enough to continue [their negotiations] and not pay undue attention to this issue.”

Other meetings for Secretary Abraham and Undersecretary of State Bolton are scheduled with Yuri Koptev, one of Russia’s top missile experts, and Industry Minister Ilya Klebanov, whose brief includes the defence sector.

Reactor “cooperation”

Part of that $20 billion in G8 aid will doubtless flow towards the MOX plutonium disposition plan, which according to insiders, has hit snags on the Russian side that could set it back as far as two years.

The precise hold-up, according to informed sources, is whether MOX fuel disposition will take place at the Urals Mayak Facility or Siberia’s Zheleznogorsk Mining and Chemical Combine, where underground tunnels assure greater safety. MOX is a fuel mixture of plutonium and uranium oxides, which — when burned in fast neutron reactors — destroys the weapons potential of the plutonium.

But there has also been embarrassing public confusion between the US Department of Energy (DOE) and Russia’s Nuclear Ministry (Minatom), regarding the reactors that this fuel would be burned in.

Minatom officials said Rumyantsev and Abraham are likely to address Russia’s BREST fast neutron reactor proposal, a plan that exists only in Minatom blueprints. The reactor supposedly has the capability of destroying weapons-grade plutonium when the plutonium is burned as MOX fuel.

Minatom officials have been pressing the BREST programme with such vigour that last week, Alexander Shanaurov, chief engineer at the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant (BAES), which already has one BN-600 fast neutron reactor and is seen as a candidate for the BREST project, announced, prematurely, that the US DOE had approved plans to build a BREST reactor at BAES.

The announcement was refuted by officials at the US Embassy, reached by Bellona Web — just as it was last month by US Undersecretary of Energy Linton Brooks.

“We signed an agreement about the disposition of plutonium by burning it in reactors, but there is nothing in that plan about using the BREST reactor to do so,” a US Embassy official told Bellona Web.

Implementing the ‘Moscow treaty’

Bolton met Tuesday with Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov as part of regular talks on nuclear arms cuts and proliferation issues, the Associated Press reported.

At a May summit, Putin and Bush signed a treaty to slash US and Russian nuclear arsenals by two-thirds, and the Group of Eight nations last month offered up to $20 billion over 10 years to secure Russia’s stockpile of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

On Sunday, Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov said no specific mechanism or timetable has been set for implementing the Moscow Treaty, which calls for each country to cut its nuclear arsenal to 1,700 to 2,200 warheads by 2012, from the 6,000 each is now allowed.

“We still have to decide how that should be done and when,” Ivanov was quoted by Interfax as saying.

Last week, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he was confident Russia would make the reduction but that US officials want greater access to information about its nuclear weapons programs. He said Russia has a “very secretive approach to a great deal of things,” AP reported.

Ivanov said the criticism was unwarranted, Interfax said.