Russia and Iran have signed a contract to build two VVER power reactors at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf. The two countries also signed a protocol envisaging possible construction of an additional two reactors in Bushehr and another four at an undetermined location. Bushehr is already home to the only power reactor in Iran (and the entire Middle East), a VVER pressurised water reactor which began commercial operation in September 2013.1,2 Iran has identified 16 potential sites for nuclear power plants − 10 on the coastal rim of the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman.3 Consideration is also being given to the construction of desalination plants powered by new reactors.1,2
Iran's nuclear plants are vulnerable to earthquakes, as discussed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative: "In 2013, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit the southwest region of Iran, where Bushehr is located. Given that much of Iran is in a seismic zone, many expressed concerns over [Bushehr's] safety following the earthquake. For example, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia voiced concerns at the IAEA Board of Governors meeting in June 2013. Iran denied allegations concerning the plant's safety "vulnerability." Simultaneously, Iran reported an electric generator malfunction and "long cracks ... in at least one section of the structure." However, Tehran dismissed the suggestion that the malfunction was connected to the earthquake."4
Oil for atoms?
There is no pretence that Iran's nuclear power program is driven by concerns about climate change. Nuclear Energy Insider and the World Nuclear Association state that Iran intends to conserve hydrocarbon reserves for future export.2,5
In February 2014, Iran's ambassador to Russia Mehdi Sanaei said the two countries have been negotiating Iranian supply of a few thousands barrels of oil per day and "Iran could use some of the proceeds [to pay for] the construction by Russia companies of a second unit at the nuclear power plant in Bushehr."6
Neutron Bytes blogger Dan Yurman writes:
"A very real question is how is Iran going to pay for the reactors? The country's economy is on the rocks because of economic sanctions and rapidly dropping oil prices. One possibility is that the Russians are betting the Iranians will offer to pay for the reactors with oil which they will be able to sell on world markets if, and only if, they negotiate a deal with the West on their uranium enrichment program.
"Running the numbers for eight 1000 MW reactors at [US]$5000/kw yields a snapshot value of $5 billion per reactor or $40 billion overall. That kind of money might be helpful to Russia which depends heavily on oil exports to keep its economy afloat. Also, it would pull $40 billion worth of oil out of world markets and put it in Putin's hands perhaps to hold for a future date when market prices have moved north of $100/barrel. At the current price of $75 for barrel oil, $40 billion works out to 533 million barrels of oil. ...
"It still seems plausible then that one motivation for Russia's deal is to prevent Iran's return to world oil markets from depressing the price further. But some experts disagree with this idea. According to the Financial Times, Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department diplomat, says that the whole enterprise is a smoke screen for Iran to justify its uranium enrichment infrastructure. He called it a potential "Putin double cross" of the negotiations being led by the European Union and the U.S."7
The US has expressed concern that trade and barter arrangements between Russia and Iran could breach or undermine US-led sanctions over Iran's nuclear program.8
Ambassador Mehdi Sanaei said: "Our Russian friends, who have stood by us at difficult moments, should have advantages on the Iranian market. But Russian companies must hurry to get into their niche in our market and not hesitate out of fear of Western sanctions."9 Meanwhile, Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, held out the prospect of Western investment in Iran's nuclear power program: "We welcome different countries' cooperation in this regard and it seems that given the tendency that the Western companies have towards cooperation with Iran, we will use their experiences in future."10
Weapons proliferation implications
What are the proliferation implications of Iran's plans for more power reactors? Perhaps not much, for these reasons:
- Russia's Rosatom will provide nuclear fuel "throughout the entire lifecycle" of the proposed eight new reactors, and spent fuel will be returned to Russia for reprocessing and storage.1,2
- The reactors will be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
- Iran already has several potential sources of fissile material for weapons: its enrichment program, the Bushehr power reactor, and a 5 MW research reactor in Tehran (as well as the partially-built IR-40 research reactor).
That said, the plan for new reactors presents several problems and risks.
Russia supplies the operating Bushehr reactor with enriched fuel − but that hasn't stopped Iran citing its nuclear power program as one justification for its enrichment program.11 Daryl Kimball wrote in Arms Control Today in September: "Iran's light-water reactor at Bushehr ... uses fuel supplied by Russia under a 10-year deal that could be extended past its 2021 end date. Russia is obliged to supply fuel unless Iran chooses not to renew the contract. But Iran's leaders are under heavy political pressure to reduce the country's reliance on foreign energy suppliers and to maintain a uranium-enrichment program that could be expanded if and when the country's nuclear energy needs grow."12
With several countries willing to engage in nuclear trade with India, and China supporting Pakistan's nuclear program, and Russia supplying new reactors to Iran, previous historical norms and agreements against nuclear trade with countries violating non-proliferation norms and commitments are near-dead.
The politicking around Iran's nuclear program is dripping with contradictions and irony − not least the leading role of the five declared nuclear weapons states, none of which take their NPT disarmament commitments seriously, in pressuring Iran to curtail its nuclear program. There are further contradictions regarding Iran's partially-built Arak research reactor. Iran is being pressured to either modify the reactor to reduce its plutonium production rate (which it seems willing to do), or to abandon the reactor altogether.
With its current design, if completed the Arak reactor could produce 5−10 kgs of weapon grade plutonium annually.13 Yet there is no effort to prevent the construction of new power reactors, each of which could produce 150−200 kg of weapon grade plutonium annually.14
France has been leading the charge to have the Arak reactor included in negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.15 Yet France supplied Israel with a similar 'research' reactor used to produce plutonium for Israel's nuclear weapons.16
Dr David Lowry, former director of the European Proliferation Information Centre, addresses another aspect of French hypocrisy: "Among the several reasons the Vienna talks on Iran's nuclear program have had to be reconvened this month — and now extended into next year — was that France objected to the deal with Iran being closed off earlier because of Tehran's contested plutonium production plant at Arak. Whatever doubts the French have over Arak, they seem to be sanguine about Iran's involvement in uranium enrichment, so much so that they are in industrial partnership with the Iranians in this technology, and have been for four decades since an agreement with the Shah of Iran in 1975. Oddly, this deal never gets reported in the context of the Iran nuclear negotiations. Is there any good reason why not? It ought to be centre-stage in any public diplomacy, but isn't. ... The hypocrisy of France, as a nuclear technology supplier to Iran, ganging up on its customer with the other self-appointed permanent five members of the UN security council, along with Germany, would be funny if it wasn't so serious."17
Following France's obstructive role in negotiations about Iran's nuclear program in November 2013, nuclear physicist Yousaf Butt wrote:
"France's torpedoing of the agreement appears less related to genuine nuclear proliferation concerns than with trying to curry favor with anti-Iranian countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates − who commission and buy expensive French military, satellite and nuclear hardware. ... France's reluctance to sign off on the interim agreement is easier to understand through the prism of its lucrative regional trade agreements with Sunni Arab monarchies opposed to Iran. For example, for the first time since 2007, France penned a military contract with the United Arab Emirates in late July. The billion dollar contract for two spy satellites couldn't have been better timed: French military contracts lost a quarter of their value last year.
"Similarly, just a month after the deal with the UAE, France also signed a billion euro contract with Saudi Arabia − a bitter rival of Iran − to overhaul four frigates and two refueling ships. French business interests in Saudi Arabia are not restricted to just the military, however. Last month, the government-controlled French nuclear power conglomerates Areva and Electricite de France (EDF) hosted about 200 Saudi business and industry representatives at a "Suppliers Day" event held in Jeddah.
"The French ambassador to Saudi Arabia explicitly expressed his hope that the Kingdom would seek French help in implementing its "huge program in the nuclear field." Such long-term infrastructure contracts could be worth roughly 40 billion euros to the French. Similar deals have already been signed with the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar, also an adversary of Iran. Given these − and future − lucrative military and infrastructure contracts, it seems likely that France would seek to curry favor with the Sunni Gulf Arab monarchies by holding up a deal with Iran."18
It seems that there will be little or no technology transfer of proliferation significance associated with the Russia−Iran reactor agreement. Yet there are mixed messages. A World Nuclear News article describes the agreement as a "turn-key" deal but also quotes Rosatom stating that the parties "intend to ensure the maximum possible participation of enterprises and organizations of the Islamic Republic of Iran in all works related to the construction of new power units on the sites, their operation and decommissioning."1
Rosatom made the mysterious statement that Russia and Iran have "confirmed their intent to cooperate in the field of the nuclear fuel cycle and ecology".1 However fuel cycle technology transfer may be limited to fuel fabrication rather than more sensitive stages such as enrichment and reprocessing. Nuclear Energy Insider reports that a Memorandum of Understanding was signed on November 19 for Iran and Russia to work together on the feasibility of assembling fuel bundles in Iran, which will be "economic" once all eight new reactors are grid-connected.2
Rosatom will also train Iranian specialists in the operation, servicing and engineering support for the new reactors.1,2
If nothing else, Iran will be better placed to build and operate indigenous reactors as a result of the collaboration with Russia.
Proliferation and security
Tied to proliferation issues are security issues such as potential military strikes and cyber-attacks on nuclear plants, and the murder of nuclear scientists and others involved in Iran's nuclear program.
Israel has repeatedly threatened to launch military strikes against Iran's nuclear program.22
In addition to the Stuxnet cyber-attack on Iran's enrichment program, there has been speculation that Bushehr was also targeted and that Stuxnet may have caused problems leading to the removal of fuel from the reactor in early 2011.35
The Bushehr plant (then under construction) sustained damage from numerous Iraqi bombing raids during the 1980−88 war.19,20
In September 2014, Iran arrested a Ukrainian man suspected of sabotaging the Bushehr plant. The suspect pretended to be an expert from Russia, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri cited authorities as saying. The nature of the alleged sabotage was not disclosed.21
An explosion occurred inside the Arak reactor building in late 2013 according to Israeli sources. According to Israeli website Debkafile, Tehran did its utmost to conceal the blast. Debkafile speculated that the blast resulted from physical sabotage, a viral attack on computers, or the result of inferior steel materials that were unable to withstand intense pressure during testing.23
In March 2014, the deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, Asghar Zarean, accused "foreigners" of trying unsuccessfully to sabotage the Arak plant.24 Zarean said: "Several cases of industrial sabotage have been neutralized in the past few months before achieving the intended damage, including sabotage at a part of the IR-40 facility at Arak."25
Arak is regarded as particularly vulnerable to attacks in its partially-built state, since attacks could damage or destroy the reactor and associated infrastructure without resulting in widespread radioactive contamination. Israel's former chief of military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, who piloted one of the planes that bombed Iraq's Osirak heavy-water reactor in 1981 before it was due to become operational, said: "Whoever considers attacking an active reactor is willing to invite another Chernobyl, and no one wants to do that."26
In addition to the strike on Osirak in 1981, Israel destroyed a suspected reactor site in Syria in 2007 and has refused to rule out bombing Arak.27
In August 2012, saboteurs blew up power lines supplying Iran's underground uranium enrichment plant near the city of Qom.28
In August 2014, Iran said it had shot down an Israeli drone that was heading for its uranium enrichment site near the town of Natanz.29
At least five people associated with Iran's nuclear program have been murdered since 2007, including the deputy head of Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz (killed by a car bomb in 2012), the head of the country's ballistic missile program, and the head of Iranian cyber warfare (who was shot dead).30−33 In 2012, Iran hanged a man it claimed was a Mossad agent over the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist in 2010.34
1. WNN, 11 Nov 2014, 'Russia to build eight more reactors in Iran', www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-Russia-to-build-eight-more-reactors-in-Ira...
2. K. Steiner-Dicks, 20 Nov 2014, 'ROSATOM main partner in Iran nuclear energy scale-up', http://analysis.nuclearenergyinsider.com/new-build/rosatom-main-partner-...
3. Energy Business Review, 17 March 2014, http://nuclear.energy-business-review.com/news/iran-chooses-potential-si...
4. Nuclear Threat Initiative, 'Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP)', www.nti.org/facilities/184/
5. WNA Weekly Digest, 14 March 2014.
6. Steve Gutterman, 17 Feb 2014, 'Iran says Russia could build nuclear reactor in exchange for oil', www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/17/us-russia-iran-oil-idUSBREA1G0DM20140217
7. Dan Yurman, 16 Nov 2014, 'Rosatom inks eight reactor deal with Iran', http://neutronbytes.com/2014/11/16/rosatom-inks-eight-reactor-deal-with-...
8. AFP, 9 Sept 2014, 'No barter deal on agenda as Russia, Iran up energy ties', www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140909/no-barter-deal-agenda-russia...
9. NTI, 18 Feb 2014, 'Envoy: Russia May Construct Reactor in Iran in Swap for Oil', www.nti.org/gsn/article/envoy-iran-may-swap-oil-reactor-russia/?mgs1=955...
10. 19 Nov 2014, 'AEOI Spokesman: Iran, West Likely to Cooperate in Building N. Power Plants', http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13930828001337
11. 13 April 2014, 'AEOI Chief: Iran Entitled to Enrich Uranium to 90% Grade', http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13930124000768
12. Daryl G. Kimball, Sept 2014, 'Bridging the Uranium-Enrichment Gap', www.armscontrol.org/act/2014_09/Focus/Bridging-the-Uranium-Enrichment-Gap
13. Mark Hibbs, 24 Oct 2013, 'The IR-40 and Diplomacy', http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/10/24/ir-40-reactor/gr68
14. Jim Green, 2014, 'Can 'reactor grade' plutonium be used in nuclear weapons?', Nuclear Monitor #787, www.wiseinternational.org/node/4067
15. Jonathan Tirone, 11 Nov 2013, 'Iran Signs Nuclear Inspection Accord as Agency Says Work Remains', www.sfgate.com/business/bloomberg/article/Iran-Signs-Nuclear-Inspection-...
16. Friends of the Earth, Australia, 'Case Studies: Civil Nuclear Programs and Weapons Proliferation', http://foe.org.au/sites/default/files/CivMil-CaseStudies2010.doc
17. David Lowry, 'France's double play in Iran nuclear talks', 26 Nov 2014, www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-d3ee-Frances-double-play-in-Iran-nuclear-t...
18. Yousaf Butt, 14 Nov 2013, 'Column: Too many cooks in the Iran nuclear kitchen', www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/14/us-too-many-cooks-idUSBRE9AD17920131114
19. Robert Tait, 25 Jan 2009, 'Iran Makes First Test-Run of Bushehr Nuclear Reactor,' www.theguardian.com/world/2009/feb/25/iran-reactor-bushehr-trial
20. AP, 18 Nov 1987, 'Iran says nuclear plant hit', The Lewiston Journal,http://tinyurl.com/iraq-iran-1987
21. Vasudevan Sridharan, 7 Sept 2014, 'Iran Arrests Ukrainian for 'Sabotaging' Bushehr Nuclear Plant', www.ibtimes.co.uk/iran-arrests-ukrainian-sabotaging-bushehr-nuclear-plan...
22. Associated Press, 25 Nov 2013, 'Israeli leader Netanyahu condemns Iran nuclear deal as a 'historic mistake' and threatens to use military action if needed', www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2513092/Israeli-PM-Netanyahu-condemns-I...
23. Julian Kossoff, 4 Nov 2013, 'Was Iran's Arak Nuclear Reactor Hit by Saboteurs?', www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/519466/20131104/iran-nuclear-arak-reactor-sab...
24. Umid Niayesh, 17 March 2014, 'Iran gives details of sabotage at IR-40 nuclear site', http://en.trend.az/regions/iran/2253805.html
25. Associated Press, 15 March 2014, 'Iran says sabotage prevented at nuclear facility', www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/1.579998
26. Julian Kossoff, 4 Nov 2013, 'Was Iran's Arak Nuclear Reactor Hit by Saboteurs?', www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/519466/20131104/iran-nuclear-arak-reactor-sab...
27. Simon Sturdee / AFP, 13 Nov 2013, 'Iran's Arak reactor: a second route to a nuclear bomb?', www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hu6ibS88Ro6pTL6dkTc-Xmb753yQ...
29. Fredrik Dahl, 12 Sept 2014, 'Iran wants U.N. atomic agency to condemn Israeli drone 'aggression'', www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/12/us-iran-nuclear-israel-idUSKBN0H71LL2...
30. Patrick Cockburn, 6 Oct 2013, 'Just who has been killing Iran's nuclear scientists?', www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/just-who-has-been-killing-irans-nuc...
31. 2 March 2014, 'Obama pushes Israel to stop assassinations of Iran nuclear scientists – report', http://rt.com/news/iran-obama-assassination-scientists-443/
32. 12 Jan 2012, 'Iran's history of nuclear incidents', www.abc.net.au/news/2012-01-12/iran27s-history-of-nuclear-incidents/3769454
33. William Tobey, 12 January 2012, 'Nuclear scientists as assassination targets', http://thebulletin.org/web-edition/features/nuclear-scientists-assassina...
34. 16 May 2012, 'Iran hangs 'Mossad agent' for scientist killing', www.abc.net.au/news/2012-05-16/iran-hangs-27mossad-agent27-for-scientist...
35. BBC, 26 Feb 2011, 'Iran nuclear plans: Bushehr fuel to be unloaded', www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-12588621