Russia preparing fuel for shipment to Iran despite western concerns

Publish date: November 16, 2007

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK - Russia gave on Friday the clearest indication yet that it was ready to send uranium to fuel Iran's first atomic power station, upping the stakes in a diplomatic crisis surrounding Tehran's nuclear programme.

The signal from Moscow is sure to draw heat from the United States, Israel and other western nations. But the diplomatic implications are far from Russia’s concerns.

Over the past year, Russia has pursued a consolidation of its nuclear industry, and is focusing on building two reactors a year until 2020 for domestic use. It is also one of the worlds most aggressive marketers of nuclear reactors abroad, counting among its customers China and India, with an expressed interest in furthering Iran’s ambitions with the construction of another five reactors there.

Bellona opposes Russia’s sale of uranium to Iran for two crucial reasons.

First, Russia is exploiting the opportunity to boost its uranium sales to countries that are a widely perceived as proliferations risks, placing its own business interests before world security.

Second, as the seller of the fuel to Iran, Russia is obligated – given that Iran has no native nuclear waste storage facilities besides the temporary ones at the Bushehr plant – to take back the spent Iranian fuel, further increasing Russia’s growing pile of 15,000 plus tons of spent nuclear fuel.

Fuel Sealing to begin before end of month

Russian and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog will start sealing the fuel shipment to the Bushehr reactor on Iran’s Persian Gulf coast later this month, a major step in toward actually shipping the fuel to Iran, RIA Novosti Russian news wire reported.

The announcement of the sealing preparations comes on the heels of Thursday’s much-anticipated assessment by the IAEA on the nature of Iran’s nuclear programme. In the report, issued Thrusday, the IAEA said it had "made arrangements to verify and seal the fresh fuel foreseen (for Bushehr) on November 26, before shipment of the fuel from Russia to Iran".

Tehran says the IAEA report has vindicated its repeated statements that its nuclear programme was purely civilian in nature and showed that there would be no basis for further discussion of it in the United Nations Security Council.

IAEA says Iran making strides in transparency
The IAEA report said Iran had made important strides toward transparency about its nuclear activity but had yet to resolve outstanding questions. It also said Iran had expanded uranium enrichment – the main sticking point the Islamic Republic has with the West, which demands under pain of further sanctions that cease uranium enrichment.

During his visit to Tehran in October, President Vladimir Putin assured Tehran that Russia would complete the construction of Iran’s first nuclear power plant on time and did not consider Iran a nuclear weapons threat. The statement came after repeated delays in the $1 billion project, which Moscow attributed to payment arrears, but Iran blamed on Western pressure.

IAEA estimated have put Iran’s current capabilities at enriching uranium to be some 10 years away from actually producing a nuclear weapon. The most recent data cited by the IAEA shows Iran has only enriched uranium to about 3 percent – 2 percent short of the required enrichment for civilian uses and far below the 90 percent required for nuclear weapons.

The IAEA inspectors will go to Russia’s Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrate Plant, which is preparing the fuel. Plant officials told RIA Novosti that the IAEA inspectors would be working there through November 29.

Russia willing to lend a helping hand

"We are ready to provide IAEA specialists with all the conditions they need to do their work," Konstantin Grabelnikov, deputy head of the Novosibirsk Plant, said in a statement from Russian state-owned nuclear fuel producer TVEL obtained by Bellona Web.

Russia has so far given no concrete date for when it will send the nuclear fuel to Bushehr, but says it would be sent six months before the plant’s repeatedly delayed start-up.

Not clear when Bushehr will open – but date approaches

According to current Russian forecasts, the reactor at the plant could be started up in 2008 and nuclear fuel would have to arrive at the plant six months before that, which means the shipment of the fuel could take place before the end of this year.

"The IAEA is controlling the construction of the Bushehr NPP at all stages, including storage of produced fuel. Fuel will be dispatched once it is required and the relevant instructions are received," Tvel’s Grabelnikov said.

Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation said remarks reported by IRNA Iranian news agency that” "Russia has formally informed (the IAEA) that it is ready for the Bushehr nuclear fuel in Russia to be checked and sealed on November 26."

"This means, from a technical and legal point of view, the fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power plant is ready for transfer to Iran."

The United States, Israel and key European Union nations suspect Iran is trying to build nuclear bombs with its advanced nuclear programme, and that its repeated claims that it wishes only to pursue nuclear energy are a smoke screen for darker purposes.

But Russia, a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council, says there is no evidence Tehran is seeking atomic weapons.