Minatom Official Admits Iran is Hedging on Returning Bushehr SNF

Publish date: September 23, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

An official at Russia's Ministry for Atomic Energy, Minatom, has said that Iran is balking at contractual agreements stipulating the return of spent nuclear fuel after Russia has for months assured the world — particularly the United States — that all such contracts were ready to be signed, a Russian news agency reported. The official's assertion was confirmed to Bellona Web by a source close to the negotiations.

According to one source — an unidentified Minatom spokesman who was quoted by Interfax news agency on Friday — Tehran still has not signed an agreement, which was prepared by the Atomic Ministry last month and was described by ministry officials as "legally binding," outlining the transfer of the spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, from the controversial 1000-megawatt $800-million Bushehr reactor that Russia is building in Iran.

According to the news report, the Minatom source said Moscow had asked Tehran recently to promptly sign the agreement — which had not been included as a clause in the original construction contracts — on the return of spent, low-grade radioactive material.

"The delay seems to be due to the preparation of a new clause to the Russian-Iranian agreement on the Bushehr plant that has been presented to Iran," the official said according to Interfax. "As soon as Iran makes a judgment on the documents concerning the return of spent nuclear fuel, the clause will be added to the agreement."

The ministry official added that Russia "will not supply nuclear fuel to the Bushehr nuclear power plant until an agreement on the spent fuel’s return to Russia is signed."

But the apparent foot dragging from the Iranian side about the eventual disposition of the SNF may not be a cause for a nuclear proliferation alarm. Speaking last Monday at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s annual general conference in Vienna, Russia’s Atomic Minister Aleksander Rumyantsev was quoted by the Global Security Newswire (GSN) as saying that Iran is not being uncooperative with Russia on the Bushehr issue.

"On the contrary, at the general conference the Iranians proclaimed the complete openness of their nuclear activities," Rumyantsev said on Wednesday to a similar question posed to him by the Russian state news agency ITAR-TASS.

Yury Bespalko, Minatom’s long-time official spokesman, told Bellona Web on Monday that he, too, did not see any ill intent behind the delay in Iran’s signing the contract that would return Bushehr’s spent fuel to Russia.

"As far as I know, all the contracts regarding the return of the Bushehr spent fuel are in order and the fuel will be returned," he said.

The concern about Russia’s reclaiming the waste from Iran centres on the fact that SNF, when reprocessed, yields plutonium that can be used in making nuclear weapons. The future of the SNF produced by the Bushehr plant has therefore been an especially unnerving question for the United States, which ranks Iran among the so-called "axis of evil," and has long contended that Russia’s construction of the supposedly civil plant is a cover for the development of a weapons grade plutonium program in Iran.

A spokesman for the US Embassy in Moscow told Bellona Web Monday that: "Our position on Bushehr is that it should not be built, that construction should not be completed."

"If it is, then we believe it would be better that the Russians control the spent fuel, and not Iran," the spokesman added.

Responsible officials at the Iranian Embassy in Moscow could not be reached for comment.

The disclosure of Iran’s stalling on the SNF contracts could be construed as an embarrassment in the wake of bold announcements last month by Deputy Nuclear Ministers Lev Ryabev and Valery Lebedev — and even Nuclear Minister Rumyantsev himself — that the SNF would be returned to Russia to prevent any proliferation risks.

Ryabev said specifically at the time that the documents would indicate that: "Iran cannot use the SNF for any other purposes than returning it to Russia," and reiterated Minatom’s assertion that Bushehr is a civilian project.

Besides mollifying the United States about potential nuclear proliferation in Iran, the contracts for the return of SNF from Iran would serve another Minatom goal: giving Russia an edge on the international SNF import market. Should the Bushehr contracts fall through, it will represent a loss of millions for the ministry.

Andrei Piontkovsky, a Moscow-based analyst with the Centre for International Studies, sees the leak about the unsigned condition of the documents by the Minatom official and the unnamed source with knowledge of the deal as a "positive" development.

"These are positive statements because Minatom is not hiding anything," said Piontkovsky. "Minatom could have gone on and on saying the documents are signed and everything is under control, but this exposes the fact that Iran is looking for a weapons program."

"Russian scientists working in Iran confirm this, and now Minatom via the leaks is suggesting that the tendency toward a weapons programexists, so now it will have to be talked about in the open, which is a positive move."

Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the anti-nuclear group Ecodefence!, however, saw no signs of reform in the tentative Minatom admission of contract troubles with Iran.

"Minatom has taken a very illiterate approach," he said. "First they will anger the United States if they lose the contract on SNF return should Iran refuse to return the fuel. Minatom also stands to lose money on the SNF imports it was counting on from Iran."

"They’ve handled this poorly," added Slivyak.