Russian Nuke Technicians Flood Iran for Final Push at Bushehr Reactor

Publish date: September 3, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

Some 600 Russian technicians — with 2000 more expected to arrive by the year's end — have begun assembling heavy equipment that will form a key part of the first reactor at a nuclear power plant in Iran.

Russia is going ahead with the $800 million project — at the Persian Gulf for of Bushehr — despite strong objections from the United States officials who in recent weeks have alleged that the construction of the 1000 megawatt reactor is a cover for Iran’s intentions to develop weapons grade plutonium there.

But Russia asserts that the nuclear plant would serve purely civilian purposes and remain under the international supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA. The plant is scheduled to begin operating in June 2004 with the loading of nuclear fuel into the reactor set for December 2003, Russia’s atomic energy ministry said.

“We have reached the stage of assembling our reactor and the turbine,” Viktor Kozlov, managing director of Atomstroiexport company — which handles construction projects abroad for Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry, or Minatom — told Bellona Web.

Kozlov added that, as construction of the nuclear plant in Iran enters its final stage, “the number of Russian specialists will rise and will reach 2,000 people by year’s end. They will be joined by their families and will live in a special village that has been set up for them near the site of the plant.”

The main shell of the water-cooled nuclear reactor, built in St Petersburg, was delivered to Iran last November.

The nuclear project has been the result of warming ties between the two countries that have also seen Iranian President Mohammed Khatami travel to Moscow for friendly talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. And in July, the Kremlin announced a draft plan for a 10-year, $10 billion programme of economic cooperation with Iran that would involve the building of five more reactors there.

The relationship has unnerved the United States, where several State Department officials have identified the Bushehr reactor as the single most pressing security question remaining between America and Russia.

US President George W Bush has named Iran, alongside Iraq and North Korea, as part of an “axis of evil” which he claims is seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Monday’s announcement from Kozlov dovetailed with yet another statement from Minatom assuring that spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, produced by the Bushehr reactor would be sent back to Russia to prevent its reprocessing, which would yield plutonium.

“Russia will strictly adhere to the principles of the International Nuclear Energy Agency, under which spent nuclear fuel must be returned to the country supplying the fuel,” Interfax quoted Deputy Nuclear Power Minister Valery Lebedev as saying Tuesday.

Because of spent fuel transportation requirements, however, that fuel will have to remain in cooling tanks at the Iranian plant for up to three years, another Minatom source, who requested anonymity said Tuesday.

Such long-term access to the fuel after its use could, many environmentalists and arms experts fear, lead to eventual clandestine reprocessing experiments in Iran.

Other possibilities for producing plutonium from the Bushehr reactor were outlined by Alexei Yablokov, former environmental advisor to the Administration of Boris Yeltsin.

Noting that the technology used in a civilian nuclear reactor can be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, Yablokov and said that Iran could manufacture enough plutonium to build a nuclear bomb by replacing the control rods in the Bushehr plant’s nuclear fuel assembly with rods filled with uranium 238 and bombarding them with neutrons. Uranium 238 is easily accessible. Natural uranium contains 99.3 per cent of uranium 238.

“That is why sharing nuclear technology with such unstable countries as Iran is a suicidal step,” said Yablokov, who now heads the Centre for Russian Environmental Policy.

It was Yablokov who in 1995 learned of a secret deal Minatom had struck with Tehran to build breeder reactors and other facilities that would help Iran produce weapons-grade plutonium. When he passed this on to Yeltsin, the Russian leader was furious and the deal was called off — publicly, at least. But Yablokov and others insist that the secret dealings continue and that it is only a matter of time before the produce a nuclear weapon.