Iran's commercial reactor is not the problem

November 3, 2010, 5:05PMANS Nuclear CafeDan Yurman

Getting the government to give up its uranium enrichment program is the key issue

Iran started this month inserting 163 fuel assemblies into a Russian built 1000 MW VVER light water reactor located at Bushehr on Iran's Persian Gulf coast. In a few months, technicians will withdraw controls rods to start the process of operating the reactor and making electricity.

VVER fuel assembly - source: TVEL

The fuel is enriched to approximately 4.6 percent. Russia has agreed to supply the fuel for the reactor for the next 10 years and to take it back. Many nonproliferation experts say that this arrangement ensures that the reactor will not be able to support development of nuclear weapons.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Jerusalem Post on October 26,"The United States does not see Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor as a threat."

"Our problem is not with their reactor at Bushehr, our problem is with their facilities at places like Natanz and their secret facility at Qom and other places where we believe they are conducting their weapons program," Clinton said.

Mike Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (ISIS) in London told Reuters on October 26, "Fueling Bushehr should not be seen as an act of defiance."

"Nobody has asked them to stop on Bushehr. I think it is a big mistake to equate these two issues. The fact that they haven't responded to Catherine Ashton [the European Union diplomat] is an important nonproliferation issue, " Fitzpatrick said.

History and development of Bushehr

Iran began building the Bushehr reactor in 1975. It was one of two planned units. Work on both units ground to a halt during the 1979 revolution. Russian picked up the pieces on one of the reactors 16 years later.

Progress at Bushehr has been delayed repeatedly by disputes between Iran's mercurial and fragmented government and Russia's industrial export engine that runs on hard currency. At one point, work stopped when Iran made a progress payment in euros and the Russians demanded dollars.

The VVER reactor is a conventional light water design widely used in Russia and eastern Europe. The Energy Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Energy notes that the Russian Federation continues to build VVER units. The VVER reactor is not the same design as the one that was destroyed at Chernobyl. The Russians have a huge image problem that any Russian-built unit may inherit from the disaster at Chernobyl-4, an RBMK water-cooled graphite-moderated reactor. The Russians are not building any more RBMKs, although several remain in service.

The new VVER units conform to international standards and have developed an export market. The new VVER design has an estimated operational life of at least 30 years. Russia is building one for India with plans for several more, and it recently inked a deal to build two for Vietnam.

Reactor's success undermines Iran's need for enrichment services

Ivan Oelrich, (right) a Senior Fellow for the Strategic Security Program at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), talked on October 26 with this blog about the Bushehr reactor. His primary point is that the plant will not take Iran any closer to building a nuclear weapon.

Ivan Oelrich

"In fact, it may help stop an Iranian bomb and establish good practices for the rest of the Middle East," he said.

"The Russian guarantee of reliable fuel services actually undermines Iran's claim it needs its uranium enrichment plants. The fact that the Russians will take back the spent fuel, under IAEA inspections to prevent diversions, makes it impossible to extract the plutonium from the fuel," Oelrich said.

It is not an additional danger, Oelrich said. "The Russians are in effect leasing the fuel. Once the fuel is back in Russia, it's their problem, not Iran's."

Oelrich said he is "cautiously optimistic that Iran will agree to talks in Europe about its uranium enrichment program.

"Iran will want to re-engage with the European Union. The sanctions are impacting the regime a lot worse than they expected."

His confidence was well placed. On October 29, the New York Times reported that Iran said it is ready to return to talks about its uranium enrichment program. Analysts point to the deep impacts of the fourth round of sanctions on the nation's oil and gas industry.

There's another point, and it goes to the reasons that Iran started its uranium enrichment work in the first place. Oelrich says that Iran isn't getting the political benefits it expected from the enrichment program. Instead of being seen as a prestigious leader in the Middle East, the regime has become a destabilizing pariah. Internally, shortages of specialty items for the oil fields and difficulties with banking and trade have undermined the regime's justification for the program.

Oelrich says that a real blow to Iran's view of their ability to withstand the sanctions was China's vote for them in the U.N. Security Council last June. These sanctions impact Iran's banking system, air cargo, and shipping industries that stop the flow of critical equipment for the country's oil and gas industries.

Since China is a major customer, and is also the country closest to Iran in the U.N. Security Council, Iran may have felt confident about how it would vote. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in Shanghai the day China voted in New York for the new round of sanctions. The vote in the U.N. was a wakeup call for him and the Iranian government.

The scope of Iran's enrichment program

Uranium enrichment centrifuges

Iran has been enriching its uranium at Natanz to 20 percent, but what alarms the U.S., Israel, and other countries is the route from 20 percent to 90 percent high enriched uranium (HEU) to make a bomb. Iran claims it is enriching to 20 percent to support a medical isotope reactor.

In May 2010, the IAEA said that Iran now has enough enriched uranium to make two atomic bombs. The U.N. Security Council sees Iran's duplicitous communications with the IAEA as evidence that it is engaged in building a bomb. According to the New York Times on May 31, 2010:

"'The toughly worded report says that Iran has expanded work at one of its nuclear sites. It also describes, step by step, how inspectors have been denied access to a series of facilities, and how Iran has refused to answer inspectors' questions on a variety of activities, including what the agency called the 'possible existence' of 'activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.'"

Oelrich says that having 20 percent uranium is one thing, but having 90 percent HEU is entirely another. He thinks that Iran doesn't have enough 90 percent HEU to make even one bomb, much less two, and that it lacks other types of bomb-making know-how.

An underground test is out of the question, as one would be readily detected and would create an entirely different crisis for Iran in its relationship with the rest of the world. As for Iran's missile program, Oelrich says that his assessment is that Iran is a long way from being able to package a bomb for use on an intermediate range ballistic missile.

What does the West want from Iran?

European Union negotiations will be influenced by Iran's complex trade relationships

Regardless of how much bomb material Iran has, a new agreement may be difficult to achieve. According to an October 27 report in the New York Times, a new agreement would require Iran to send an increase of about two-thirds from the amount required under a tentative deal offered in Vienna a year ago.

Iran stalled on implementation and then walked away. The reason for the increase is that Iran has been making more enriched uranium since it broke off talks a year ago. Even as Iran rejected that deal, it continued its uranium enrichment program.

The Wall Street Journal reported on October 27 that the IAEA now estimates that Iran has an inventory of 2800 kilograms (6200 lbs), compared with a stockpile of 1800 kilograms (4000 lbs) in September 2009. The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. diplomats want to expand the original fuel-swap deal to remove more of the enriched uranium.

Instead of 1200 kilograms discussed last year, Iran would need to agree to secure at least 50 percent more, or 1800 kilograms, at another country such as Turkey. Nuclear experts say that this would keep Iran's inventory below the level that could sustain development of a working bomb. Iran would not be able to retrieve the uranium without IAEA consent.

The Times also reported that the Obama administration will demand that Iran halt all production of nuclear fuel that it is currently enriching to 20 percent. That would cut off the path to HEU, which at 90 percent U-235 is bomb material.

Can Iran cut a deal?

Iran's political climate is a mosaic of factions

It isn't clear that Iran has the political will to make such an agreement. The country lacks a cohesive leadership structure complicated by theocratic politics. There is dissent among conservatives and domestic opposition that has been brutally suppressed by the Revolutionary Guards since the June 2009 elections.

Iran's hard liners might again stop an agreement and tough it out. The lack of a united front at home, however, may be seen as an opportunity by some Iranian leaders as a rationale to stop enrichment, which would lift the sanctions.

The U.S. and the European Union have to convince Iran that the sanctions will put more of a dent in the nation's economic life and that things could get a lot worse. By the time you read this blog post, the ground may shift again. The agenda for the negotiations, which are set to start on November 10, hasn't been set, and Iran has already sent conflicting messages about what it is willing to put on the table.

Will Iran change or will it be more of the same?

Iran may yet twist, turn, and delay the negotiations in an attempt to delay an agreement.

The fourth round of sanctions have hit hard. However, China's vote for them was a signature change in the political landscape further isolating the Iranian regime on a global scale. Still, it remains unclear whether Iran will respond in a rational manner.

So far signals from Iran do not bear out western optimism.  Reuters reported November 2 Iran's envoy to the U.N. nuclear agency scoffed at a U.S. position that Tehran would have to agree to tougher conditions than those it rejected last summer.

"I'm afraid there is no logic for these kind of statements," Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh told Reuters when asked about a U.S. media report that Iran would be required to part with some two metric tons of its uranium stockpile under a revised proposal.

The Los Angeles Times reported that a highly placed European Union diplomat says Iran is unlikely to come to terms over its nuclear program.

Since the imposition of the latest sanctions, over the summer, "the whole question has been, 'Is that going to create a new political situation?'" the diplomat told a group of reporters. "We haven't seen anything yet."

Future posts on this blog will attempt to follow the negotiations and seek to answer the "so what" questions that emerge from the blizzard of news media reports.


Dan Yurman is the publisher of Idaho Samizdat, a blog on nuclear energy. He is a contributing reporter for Fuel Cycle Week and a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

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