Russia has started loading fuel into the reactor at Iran’s first nuclear power plant – a key step in making the Bushehr station operational. But what is the project about? Purely business, or an ace in a political hand?
Following years of delays, the construction of the Bushehr power plant – the major part of which was carried out by Russian engineers – is finally nearing its completion. On August 21, Russian and Iranian specialists are beginning to load uranium-packed fuel rods into the station’s reactor.
On this day “the delivery of nuclear fuel from the storage facility at the site of the Bushehr nuclear power plant into the energy unit at this station will begin. From that moment on, the reactor will be officially classified as a nuclear installation,” said Sergey Novikov, assistant director general of Russian nuclear agency Rosatom. This event marks “the end of the testing stage for all systems built by Russian specialists at the Bushehr nuclear power plant and the beginning of the physical launch phase,” Novikov said, cited Itar-Tass.
Russia’s delegation headed by Rosatom chief Sergey Kiriyenko has arrived in the Islamic Republic to attend the ceremony in Bushehr, which is located on the Gulf coast of southwest Iran.
Speaking earlier this week, the Rosatom head specifically underlined that the launch would go under the supervision of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.
Saturday’s event is of “crucial importance” and is proof that Russia always fulfills its obligations, he said. The official stressed that even though Russia played the leading role in the construction of the power plant, more than a dozen of countries, “including [some EU countries] and the Asia-Pacific region, provided deliveries.”
The project demonstrates that if Tehran “develops a peaceful nuclear energy program under IAEA control and provided that international law is observed, they can do so, like any other country,” Kiriyenko said.
It is planned that Russia and Iran will establish a joint venture to operate Tehran’s first nuclear power plant since the Islamic Republic has not got enough experience in maintaining such installations. Russia will be providing the nuclear fuel for Iran’s plant and, after it is used up, it will be sent back to the country.
Bushehr : Technicians prepare to wash the reactor of the Bushehr nuclear power plant at the Iranian port town of Bushehr, 1200 Kms south of Tehran, 03 April 2007. (AFP Photo / Behrouz Mehri) )
However, it will take from two to three months for the nuclear-generated electricity to start running, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi said earlier as cited by Fars news agency. Salehi, who is one of Iran’s 12 vice presidents, is also in Bushehr representing the Iranian delegation at the launching ceremony. Salehi stressed that Iran had invited monitors from the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, to attend the event since “the fuel is sealed and IAEA inspectors must be present to remove them,” Middle-east-online cited.
Launching a new nuclear power plant is no doubt a big event, but it would never draw so much attention if not for Tehran’s controversial nuclear program – a bone of contention for the international community. The main concern is that Iran is so keen on developing nuclear technologies not purely for peaceful purposes – as it has always maintained – but because it eyes creating a nuclear bomb. It has been widely speculated in the media that, by getting its hand on nuclear technologies in Bushehr, Iran could somehow use it to advance in its uranium enrichment program.
Commenting on the speculations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed that the Bushehr plant is a deterrent that keeps Iran within the nuclear non-proliferation space.
“It is an important anchor that keeps Iran within the non-proliferation regimen,” Lavrov said on Wednesday, Itar-Tass reports. “I would advise all those who regard this as a wrong message to look back at what the classics said. For instance, George W. Bush during his presidency described the Bushehr project as a sample of cooperation with Iran in the nuclear sphere,” Lavrov noted. He reiterated what both the Russian and Iranian officials have been stressing lately: the project is fully under control of the IAEA “and is immune from any proliferation risks.”
“This is an evaluation that is shared by all leaders of Western countries,” he said. As for the speculations, he went on “there will always be some, even regarding such an impeccable event from the standpoint of international law as the opening of Bushehr.”
Iran has built a pressurized water reactor, or PWR, which the most common type of reactors built across the world, Sergey Pereslegin, Advisor to the Director of the Atomic Reactors Research Institute in Dimitrovgrad and author of the study “Myths of Chernobyl”, told RT.
For instance, France’s “Areva is going to build a PWR in Indonesia, a politically unstable Muslim country, while Toshiba-Westinghouse is building one in the Philippines. And no one is imposing sanctions on those projects,” he said.
In principle, he went on, any type of reactor can be used to build a bomb. At the same time, “you can build a bomb without reactor". And this is particularly true in the case of Iran who has the centrifugal uranium enrichment technology. “It can create a bomb even without Bushehr. By the way, from the technical viewpoint it is much easier than producing plutonium from the spent nuclear fuel,” Pereslegin said.
Furthermore, the fuel is leased to Iran which means that it must return the spent fuel – that could theoretically be used to produce plutonium – back to Russia, he stressed. “Modern verification methods can guarantee that not a single kilogram of the spent fuel goes missing,” Pereslegin underlined.
According to the analyst, even something as simple as water electrolysis could be used to produce a nuclear bomb:
“Such was, for instance, the nuclear project in Hitler’s Germany: the first stage included building a reactor that runs on non-enriched uranium and heavy water produced by electrolysis, and at the second stage the reactor would produce plutonium through regular chemical methods.” He added that Pakistan is living proof that this is doable.
The question, he said, is whether the nations will use these technologies to produce nuclear weapons. “I find it hard to understand why I should be confident that Japan, which has had all the required technologies for a long time, is sure to show goodwill while Iran isn’t,” Pereslegin said. “That’s where double standards and colonialism come in: ‘Japan and Pakistan are our allies, we are confident of their goodwill. Iran is a totalitarian Islamic nation that once seized our embassy. We doubt its goodwill’,” he concluded.
What is also important is that Iran does need the Bushehr station to cover its growing electricity demands and that is one of strong guarantees that the Islamic Republic will act within international agreements and use the technologies at the plant for its direct purposes only.
Back in spring, Washington was not especially happy about Russia’s determination to go forward with the Bushehr project. During a meeting with Sergey Lavrov, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that, while Iran is entitled to civil nuclear power, it has no right to develop its nuclear weapons program.
“If it reassures the world, or if its behavior is changed because of international sanctions, then they can pursue peaceful, civil nuclear power. In the absence of those reassurances, we think it would be premature to go forward with any project at this time, because we want to send an unequivocal message to the Iranians,” she said.
Isfahan : Iranian students hold up a sign reading "Down With America" as the form a human chain around the uranium conversion facility, outside Isfahan, in a show of support for Iran's decision to reopen the plant 16 August 2005. (AFP Photo / Atta Kenare)
Russia initially opposed sanctions against Iran and insisted the dispute should be solved through dialogue. However, on June 9, along with other members of the UN Security Council, it approved the new set of sanctions against the republic. That followed Tehran’s failing to prove its program has no military motives. The move puzzled analysts and angered Iran, but Moscow stands firm on its policy and the Kremlin is concerned over Iran’s alleged nuclear pursuit. The Islamic Republic “is getting closer to possessing the potential that in principle can be used to create a nuclear weapon,” president Medvedev stated earlier this summer.
The US, meanwhile, has softened its stance on the Bushehr project. Commenting on the issue on August 13, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said what was important is that the fueling of the Bushehr power plant is being done under IAEA monitoring.
“Russia is providing for the fuel and taking the spent fuel back out of the country,” he said as published on the White House official website. “It, quite clearly…underscores that Iran does not need its own enrichment capability if its intentions, as it states, are for a peaceful nuclear program,” he added. “In many ways, this is a concept that closes that fuel loop, and I think, again, demonstrates and proves to the world that if the Iranians are sincere in a peaceful program, their needs can be met without undertaking its own enrichment program, which call into question its motives.”
The State Department echoed the White House shortly afterwards.
“Bushehr is a civilian nuclear project and it actually proves that they don’t need to build indigenous enrichment facilities. And actually it provides a model that we’ve extended – the Party of 5+1 has extended to Iran,” acting deputy state department spokesman Mark Toner said at a press briefing on August 17.
However, it has been widely rumored in the media that a military strike could be launched against the Russian-built facility in the Islamic Republic. Earlier this week, former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton went as far as openly calling on Israel to attack Bushehr. In an interview with Fox News, he said Israel had several days left to act. Holding off would be too late: once the reactor is loaded with the fuel, it would no longer be possible because of the risk of radiation spreading, which Israel wants to avoid. Without a military strike, he said, Tehran would “achieve something that no other opponent of Israel, no other enemy of the United States in the Middle East really has, and that is a functioning nuclear reactor.”
Despite Washington finally giving its official approval to the Bushehr station launch, the question remains in the air: will Israel attack Iran or will it not? Or is it just a question of time?
Cole Harvey from the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies said that attacking Iran is the surest way to make the country develop nuclear weapons.
“I would say that the best outcome of a military strike on Iran would be setting back the nuclear program by a few years, perhaps, but it would also unite the leadership and population of Iran behind the idea of actually acquiring nuclear weapons,” he said.
“It seems like they want to keep the option open, but that the decision to actually build the weapon has not been taken and the clearest, most direct way to make that decision happen would be to actually attack the nuclear facilities,” Harvey added.downloadembed
Pushing the start button at Bushehr is a significant event for both Iran and Russia. To say the least, Iran will get its first atomic station and nuclear generated energy and Russia will obtain economic dividends as well as an opportunity to get profitable contracts in the future.
CBushehr : A Russian technician works in the control room of Bushehr nuclear power plant at the Iranian port town of Bushehr, 1200 Kms south of Tehran, on February 25, 2009. (AFP Photo / Behrouz Mehri)
Praising the Russian contribution to the completion of the power plant, Iran's ambassador to Moscow, Seyed Mahmoud-Reza Sajjadi, said that the country will be a favored contractor for future nuclear projects in Iran.
“Considering Russia's expertise… in constructing the Bushehr nuclear plant, the country will be given priority for future nuclear cooperation with Iran,” he told the Mehr news agency on Wednesday, cites Press TV.
The political importance of the event for Iranian leadership cannot be underrated either and, as former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton noted, can be seen in Tehran as a “victory” – at least a symbolic one in its confrontation with the US and the West.
Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s atomic chief, stated on Wednesday that “the start-up of the plant will be a thorn in the eye of the ill-wishers,” Mehr news cited.
Ambassador Sajjadi told Fars News Agency that the news on the planned loading of the fuel into Bushehr reactor “was so unexpected that it perplexed all enemies of the project and made them utter disintegrated, irrelevant and illogical remarks.” He also stated that the completion of the nuclear plant indicates Iran's power, stability and determination in putting its decisions into effect, Fars cited. “The world should know that when the Iranian nation makes a decision on an issue, it [completes it] irrespective of the will of the hegemonic governments,” Sajjadi said.
The launch of the Bushehr power plant “shows that pragmatic interests now prevail in Russia, as well as the understanding that stability of its southern neighbor is more important than political gestures towards the West that didn’t want Russia to finish the Bushehr plant,” Geydar Dzhemal, political analyst and chairman of the Islamic Committee of Russia, told RT.
According to Dzhemal, Iran needs the project since it means “technological development, development of engineering and technological research, as well as inclusion into the narrow circle of developed countries.”
Having a nuclear program, he went on, turns a country into a developed and modern one. “Such a country can produce its own specialists to expand its technical capabilities for economic use of natural resources,” Dzhemal said.
As of today, he noted, 40 countries in the world can easily produce nuclear charges. “A nuclear program is a technology that can be used to power light bulbs or for military purposes. It is a political choice made by the US to concentrate their attention on Iran’s nuclear program,” Dzhemal said.
The analyst reminded that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa (religious decree) in 2004 banning the use of nuclear weapons. Later Khamenei explained that “the fatwa meant nuclear weapons could not be used against Israel as there are Muslims living there.”
“In an overregulated country such as Iran, any nuclear program is definitely peaceful,” Dzhemal concluded.
It took several decades for the Iranian dream of being able to produce nuclear-generated electricity to come true. The Islamic state’s nuclear project was launched back in the 1950s with US support as part of the Atoms for Peace program.
Isfahan : Representatives of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Group 77 and Arab League visit the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facilities (UCF), 420 kms south of Tehran, 03 February 2007. (AFP Photo / Behrouz Mehri)
In 1968, Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and ratified it in 1970, making the country’s nuclear program subject to IAEA verification. As a party to the treaty, Iran also got its right for the development of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.
The construction of the 1000MW Bushehr power plant was started about 35 years ago in the mid-seventies by Kraftwerk Union AG (KWU), a subsidiary of Germany’s Siemens. However, the work was stopped shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution which ousted the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and brought to power Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The new leader was not in favor of the project, seeing it as un-Islamic. To some extent, the German decision was also triggered by pressure from the US, who imposed an embargo on hi-tech supplies to Iran after the revolution and the 444-day siege of the American Embassy in Tehran.
“Prior to the Islamic Revolution, the United States agreed that Iran needed nuclear energy for its stable development,” Ali Akbar Salehi recalled on Wednesday, Itar-Tass wrote. “However, the Americans have been saying lately that Iran has got oil and gas, which is quite enough.”
Throughout the 1980s – as Iran had to deal with internal opposition and the 1980-1988 war against Iraq – the work on the station was frozen and reactors were partially destroyed. In 1989, after Khomeini’s death, the Bushehr project was revived and Tehran started seeking partners to help them complete the construction of the nuclear power plant. Siemens declined to finish the job, citing nuclear proliferation concerns.
In 1995, Tehran sealed a $1 billion deal with Moscow under which the Russian side would resume the construction and install its equipment into the part of the station built by the Germans – which meant almost completely redesigning the site. This time, again, not everything went smoothly and the startup of the station was put off repeatedly for a number of reasons, including Iran delaying payments. Initially, Bushehr was scheduled to be completed in 1999.
It is only in 2010 that Atomstroyexport (Rosatom’s subsidiary) reached the finish line in the decades-long construction.
Despite having the third largest oil reserves and second largest gas reserves in the world, Iran has been striving to use its energy more efficiently as energy wastage costs the state millions of dollars. Moreover, the country’s power demand is growing by about 7-9 % per year. Relying on combined-cycle and hydroelectric power was brought in question after a severe drought in 2007-2008 which resulted in a drop of nearly 70% in hydroelectric power generation, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).
With thanks to Nadezhda Kevorkova for her contribution
Natalia Makarova, RT