Still No Deal for Return of Bushehr SNF

Publish date: December 29, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

Russia's Atomic Energy Minister said Friday that Russia will increase it's nuclear support with Iran, even though a long-promised agreement obligating Tehran to return spent nuclear fuel to Russia has yet to be signed.

The announcement, which outlined plans to step up the pace of construction at the Bushehr reactor, and also confirmed the Minstry’s interest in building several more reactors in Iran over the next 10 years, including a second block at Bushehr, comes amid increasing tensions that North Korea and Iraq — two countries that, along with Iran, have been dubbed by US President George Bush as “the axis of evil” — are pursuing nuclear weapons programmes.

According to Russia’s Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev, who returned from talks in Iran late last week, the agreement for the return of the spent nuclear fuel (SNF) will be signed in January. This contract, however, was widely expected to be closed during Rumyantsev’s four day visit to Iran last week, and the delay casts new doubts on Minatom’s resolve in securing the accord.

Indeed, the new delay is one of many. Rumyantsev has repeatedly made similar announcements over the past six months, ever since a leak of government documents to Greenpeace in July revealed that the 7-year old, $800mln contract for the building of the Bushehr reactor did not include provisions for return of the fuel that will be provided to the plant by Russia.

At that time, representatives of the Atomic Energy Ministry, or Minatom, promised that a binding agreement would be signed by August. After that deadline passed, Minatom made several more declarations that the singing of the accord was in the offing, but those announcements, too, went unfulfilled.

Western fears surrounding the fate of Busheher’s fuel centre on the possibility that Iran might reprocess it for plutonium in order to build nuclear weapons.

These fears intensified last week when commercial satellite photos revealed two other nuclear instalments in Iran that officials in Washington allege will be used for the production of nuclear weapons.

One site, near Arak, is a heavy water reactor, which would be critical for producing plutonium. The other site, near Nantanz, will produce highly enriched uranium, another alternative for producing nuclear weapons.

Russia has denied its involvement with these instalments and Iran has said the sites are exclusively for peaceful purposes.

But an official from the US Department of Defence last week contradicted that in a telephone interview with Bellona Web, saying that the Russians were involved “in all aspects of the Iranian nuclear programme,” including the two newly disclosed facilities.

Iran has also used a web of phoney trading companies to procure equipment and obscure its drive to secretly build large facilities that could produce the materials needed for nuclear weapons, the Washington Post reported last week.

A delegation from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, is expected to inspect these two newly revealed facilities in February with an eye toward installing safeguards to prevent the manufacture of weapons.

Despite current international turmoil over the apparent bloom of nuclear programmes in rogue states — as well as the new revelations regarding Iran’s programme specifically— Rumyantsev told a news conference Friday that the first delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran will made by January. This delivery will be made by Atomstroiexport, with subsequent deliveries to be made by the TVEL company. Russia and Iran will then discuss the construction of the second power block at Bushehr, Rumyantsev said.

“Iran is using nuclear energy exclusively for peaceful purposes,” he said.

“There are no programs to create nuclear weapons or develop sensitive nuclear technologies.”

A spokesman for the US State Department reiterated America’s opposition toward any assistance to Iran’s nuclear ambitions in a telephone interview with Bellona Web Friday, but said there was as yet no formal response from Washington regarding the delay in SNF agreement.

Rumyantsev met the head of Iran’s atomic energy organisation, Gholam Reza Agazadeh, in Tehran on Wednesday and sketched out steps to accelerate the construction of the Bushehr reactor, which had reportedly fallen several weeks behind schedule, despite an ongoing infusion of Russian experts at the site that is expected to reach 2,000 workers by year’s end.

Because of this boost, Rumyantsev and Agazadeh agreed that the first block of the 1,000-megawatt unit would come online in December 2003 as originally scheduled.