(CNSNews.com) – Iran’s plan to fire up its first nuclear power reactor will not affect its ongoing uranium enrichment activities, despite Western governments’ arguments that the power plant’s operating arrangements will render enrichment unnecessary.
Years behind schedule, the 1,000-megawatt reactor in the southern Iranian port of Bushehr will finally be loaded with Russian-supplied low enriched uranium (LEU) late this week during a ceremony to be attended by senior officials from both countries.
From that point on, according to the Russian nuclear power agency Rosatom, the plant will be effectively up and running. Iranian reports say actual operation will begin sometime during the Persian month of Shahrivar, which runs from Aug. 23 to Sept. 22.
Under a 10-year agreement signed in 2005, Russia will supply the LEU fuel for Bushehr, and Iran is required to ship the spent fuel back to Russia – a move designed to allay concerns that Tehran may try to separate plutonium which could be used in a weapons program.
The U.S. and other governments suspect Tehran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop atomic weapons capability, and they were not altogether satisfied with the arrangement: Before the irradiated fuel can be returned to Russia, it must be stored to allow sufficient radioactive decay for safe transportation, and this “cooling” period could arguably give the Iranians time to covertly separate plutonium.
Nonetheless, the U.S. agreed that the Bushehr fuel supply-and-return agreement could remove one of the justifications Iran had given for the need to enrich uranium.
“If the Iranians accept that [Russian-supplied] uranium for a civilian power plant, then there’s no need for them to learn how to enrich,” President Bush said in 2007, after the Russians delivered the first fuel shipment.
After Iran and Russia announced the timetable for this week’s fuel-loading, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs reiterated that position.
“Russia is providing the fuel, and taking the fuel back out,” he said Friday, adding that that arrangement “underscores that Iran does not need its own enrichment capability if its intentions – as it states – are for a peaceful nuclear program.”
The view was echoed Monday by the French foreign ministry. “The Iranian enrichment program does not have any identifiable civilian purpose since the fuel for the only power station that will be in operation during the next few years, the Bushehr power station, will be supplied by Russia.,” said spokeswoman Christine Fages.
During previous holdups in getting Bushehr operational, usually resulting from late Iranian payments to Russia, Iranian officials have cited the delays as justification for its own uranium enrichment activities.
But now that the plant is set to go online, Iranian officials have been quick to disagree with the U.S. and French remarks.
“We in the parliament have tasked the government with producing 20,000 megawatts of nuclear electricity,” said Alaeddin Borouujerdi, chairman of the parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission.
“That means setting up 20 power plants like Bushehr,” the Fars news agency quoted him as saying. “To supply the fuel needed for these power plants ... we should carry out enrichment and we are doing it.”
“Iran’s ongoing enrichment activity is not intended for the Bushehr nuclear reactor,” Jam-e-Jam, the official newspaper of the state-owned broadcaster, said in an editorial Monday. “Rather Iran needs to produce nuclear fuel to feed nuclear reactors that it plans to build in the future.”
Iran’s ambassador to Moscow, Mahmoud-Reza Sajjadi, on Monday also dismissed Western assertions that Iran should stop its enrichment because Russia is providing fuel for Bushehr, Fars reported.
Enriched uranium is used as fuel in power plants, while highly-enriched uranium is a key ingredient of an atomic bomb.
The centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz plant initially enriched to 3.5 percent, the grade required for a power plant. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last February ordered Iran’s atomic agency to start enriching up to 20 percent, the upper end of the required level for research reactors like a Tehran-based medical research facility. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched at more than 90 percent.
Iran has one operating uranium enrichment facility in the central city of Natanz and last year was accused of building a second in secret at the Shi’ite holy city of Qom. Last November it announced plans to build 10 more.
The head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi, said this week that the first of the 10 would be built in 2011.
A U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in June requires Iran to suspend all enrichment-related activities, to stop work underway on any enrichment facility, and not to build any more.
Rosatom spokesman Sergei Novikov stressed Monday that Bushehr was a purely peaceful project as “a nuclear power plant just generates electricity.”
“I think it is a very strong signal that international society supports such peaceful projects as Bushehr, because everybody understands that you cannot use a power plant in a hypothetical military program,” he told Russian TV.
Novikov said both the enrichment and management of the spent fuel “are taken out of Iranian responsibility, because we are going to supply the Bushehr power plant with nuclear fuel.”
On Friday John Bolton, a former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and top arms control official in the Bush administration, told Fox News that once Bushehr is operational it will effectively be removed as a potential target for a preemptive Israeli military strike because of the risk of spreading radiation which could harm the broader region.
The Bushehr reactor has been decades in the making. A German company first began work on the facility in the 1970s but after the Islamic revolution in 1979 it withdrew, citing $450 million in overdue payments.
Russia signed contracts in the 1990s to complete the partially-built plant. Bushehr was originally expected to go online in 2006 but has faced a series of delays since then, some of them linked to payment delays.