Iran, Russia ink deal for Bushehr fuel that includes SNF return, but West still jittery

Publish date: February 27, 2005

Written by: Charles Digges

Russia and Iran signed a nuclear fuel supply deal long opposed by Washington on Sunday, paving the way for Iran to start up its first atomic reactor next year in the Persian Gulf port city of Bushehr.

The deal includes a provision to repatriate the Russian produced spent nuclear fuel (SNF) so that plutonium cannot be reprocessed from it in Iran for nuclear weapons purposes, and Iran has bridled for more than years against that specific clause, delaying time and again signing a deal that would provide for the SNF’s return to Russia.

But the point of returning the spent fuel to Russia became somewhat academic after Iran announced in 2003 its intentions to revive it nascent uranium mining infrastructure—meaning the Islamic Republic will soon be capable of manufacturing its own fuel and enriching uranium even more highly in its complex of hexaflouride gas uranium enrichment centrifuges.

It is therefore something of a mystery as to why Iran has stalled on returning its future SNF, which will add to the some 15,000 tonnes of SNF Russia is already barely managing. But Tehran Sunday did finally agreed to send the spent fuel back, though both sides still disagree on who should pay for its return.

The governments said Sunday they had agreed on details of the shipment, but said the timing and the costs were confidential Both sides refused to discuss further details of shipping the nuclear fuel to Iran and the spent fuel back to Russia, but insisted that the agreement conforms to international nuclear regulations.

"This is a very important incident in the ties between the two countries and in the near future a number of Russian experts will be sent to Bushehr to equip the power station," Alexander Rumyantsev, head of Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) was quoted by the Reuters as saying.

"Iran observes all the regulations on the prohibition of the spread of nuclear weapons."

In 2002, Bellona Web and other environmental news agencies revealed that Russia’s deal with Iran included no provisions for return of the fuel, which ratcheted up heat on the Kremlin from Washington which believes Iran is building a clandestine nuclear arms program.

Iran, OPEC’s second largest oil producer, denies the charge and has received strong backing from Moscow, which is keen to play a major role in expanding Iran’s nuclear energy program.

Is Iran gunning for nuclear weapons?
But strong evidence, revealed last month by The New Yorker magazine, suggests that the United States is refocusing and revising its current military deployment in Iraq toward Iran and that the gathering of intelligence by special forces units and remote controlled aircraft on the locations of Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges is already underway.

So far, say Iranian dissident groups and US Defence Department sources, Iran has amassed some 1000 centrifuges, some of them purchased from Pakistan, which, when fully operable, will be capable of producing some two to four nuclear warheads a year.

Washington and many European nations have long pressured Moscow to abandon it civilian nuclear co-operation with Iran, and has pressed hard for the Russians to at least gain some surety that the spent nuclear fuel will be returned to Russia for storage, most likely in Zheleznogorsk, the closed central Siberian nuclear city that has the country’s only facility for storing spent fuel from VVER-1000 light-water reactors of the type Moscow is building in Bushehr.


Storage options for the Iranian fuel
But Zheleznogorsk has troubling security problems, and in 2001, former State Dume Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin and a television camera crew followed a well-worn foot path through a hold in wall surrounding the closes city and posed for pictures in Zheleznogorsk’s RT-2 SNF storage site unhindered by any of the sentries meant to be guarding the facility.

Frustrated by this lapse in security, agents of the Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB)—the KGB’s successor—planted without hindrance by Interior Ministry guards a paper mache bomb at the RT-2 facility in early 2003. The bomb lay in the facility unnoticed for several days, and the incredulous officers re-entered the site, again unhindered, to retrieve the mock-up explosive. A sweeping re-evaluation of security in Zheleznogorsk, which is home to one of three remaining plutonium reactors. All are being shut down with American funding.

Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh and Rumyantsev signed Sunday’s fuel delivery and return agreement at the $800 million Bushehr nuclear power plant after Aghazadeh showed Rumyantsev Bushehr’s nuclear fuel storage house and the reactor core, expected to be operational by late 2005 or early 2006.

"What I saw was much better and more than I had expected. Assembling operations in the past three to four months have been expedited," Rumyantsev said, according to news reports. Referring to the process to complete the plant, he added: "I can’t say the situation is excellent, but it’s very good."

Aghazadeh said the fuel storage area was built to international standards. "This storage house is ready to receive nuclear fuel," he said.

Fuel repatriation unlikely to settle Washington’s stomach
Moscow hopes the SNF repatriation clause in the fuel deal will allay U.S. worries that Iran may use the spent fuel, which could be reprocessed into bomb-grade plutonium, to develop arms. But it is likely to be cold comfort for the Bush administration. On Thursday Bush voiced his concerns about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continued support of Teheran’s nuclear programme at a summit between the two leaders in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Iran doesn’t need Russian fuel in the long run
Iranian efforts to produce its own fuel rather than importing it have been a bigger concern in the international community than the deal with Russia. That’s because the enrichment process can be carried further to produce material for nuclear weapons.

France, Britain and Germany are trying to secure an Iranian commitment to scrap enrichment plans in exchange for economic aid, technical support and backing for Tehran’s efforts to join mainstream international organisations. Iran has suspended enrichment-related activities during the talks with the Europeans, which both sides have said were difficult, but insists the freeze will be brief.

Bush has expressed support for the European efforts. But documents being circulated among International Atomic Energy Agency board members in Vienna ahead of a board meeting Monday, and seen by The Associated Press there, indicated Washington would try to increase pressure on Tehran by the next agency board meeting in June should the European talks fail.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has been probing Iran’s nuclear programme for over two years, said it would also keep a careful eye on Tehran’s use of the fuel.

Spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said in a statement Sunday that inspectors would "monitor closely the use of the fuel and where it goes" as part of agency safeguards monitoring aimed at ensuring no nuclear materials are diverted to any covert weapons activities.

Bushehr to open in late- to mid-2006
Rumyantsev said Bushehr would start operating in late 2006.

"We are planning the physical launch at the end of 2006. About half a year before this the first delivery of fuel will take place," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as saying.

Iranian officials put the plant’s launch about six months earlier in mid-2006. Diplomats in Tehran said they may have been referring to the reactor’s initial test phase, Reuters reported.

Rumyantsev said the first batch of enriched uranium fuel was in Siberia ready to be shipped.

Once operational, Bushehr will generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity. Initiated before Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and badly damaged during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the project was later revived with Russian help.