Iran's first nuclear power plant: a proliferation threat?

On 21 August 2010, Russian engineers began loading fuel into the Bushehr nuclear reactor in southern Iran. Once the start-up is complete, Bushehr will be the first operational nuclear power plant in the Middle East.

Construction of two nuclear reactors at Bushehr began in 1975, following an agreement between the Shah’s government and German company Kraftwerk Union, a subsidiary of Siemens. At the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, one of the reactors was reported to be 75 per cent complete. Following the Revolution, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini announced his opposition to nuclear technology, labelling it a ‘suspicious Western innovation’ and construction at Bushehr was suspended. The partially completed reactors were then attacked by the Iraqi air force on numerous occasions between 1980–1988 during the Iran-Iraq war.

Following Khomeini’s death in 1989, the Iranian Government declared its intention to resurrect the nuclear program that began under the Shah. In January 1995, Iranian authorities announced that Russia would complete at least one of the reactors at Bushehr, with construction to be finished by 1999. Western (especially US) opposition to nuclear cooperation with Iran hampered completion of the project, as did funding issues and the inability to get access to German technology and components.

Regarding the proliferation threat posed by the Bushehr reactor, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated in March 2010 that for Iran to start up the reactor before it had convinced the international community that its nuclear program was peaceful would be ‘premature’. Some also claim that Iran could divert spent fuel from the reactor and attempt to reprocess it into weapons-grade plutonium.

Others, however, believe that as Bushehr is closely watched by the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and because Russia is supplying the low-enriched uranium for the reactor and transferring the spent reactor fuel off Iranian territory, the proliferation threat is limited. Indeed, a US State Department official said on 21 August that ‘we recognize that the Bushehr reactor is designed to provide civilian nuclear power and do not view it as a proliferation risk’.

Australia’s Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, gave some indication of Australia’s position on the start-up of the reactor when he said on 16 August that Bushehr ‘underlines the point that Iran can have access to civil nuclear power but not engage in an enrichment process which runs the risk of access to weapons’. The pursuit of enrichment technology has been one of the main factors contributing to the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United Nations Security Council.

For more information on the Bushehr reactor, see A Khlopkov and A Lutkova, 'The Bushehr NPP: Why did it take so long?' Centre for Energy and Security Studies, Moscow, 21 August 2010.
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Tags: Iran


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