Russian-Iranian Nuclear Cooperation – The 1998 Moscow Summit

August 31, 1998
Compiled by Dr. Scott Parrish and Dr. Fred Wehling

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In January 1995, Russian Minister of Atomic Energy Viktor Mikhailov and the head of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran, Reza Amrollahi, signed a $800 million contract calling for Russia to complete the first unit of the unfinished nuclear power station at Bushehr by installing a 1,000MW VVER-1000 light-water reactor at the site within four and a half years.[1] Construction of a nuclear power station at Bushehr had been started in 1974 by the German firm Siemens as part of the Shahs nuclear program. However, work stopped after the Iranian revolution of 1979, and the site was heavily damaged by bombing during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Iran tried to find a contractor to finish the plant during the 1980s, but failed owing to US pressure on possible suppliers. Amrollahi and Mikhailov also signed a secret protocol to the contract under which Russia and Iran would conduct talks on a wide range of nuclear assistance beyond the power reactor. Under this protocol, Russia agreed to open negotiations on providing Iranian specialists with training at Russian nuclear research centers, assisting Irans efforts to mine uranium, and supplying Iran with a gas-centrifuge uranium enrichment facility. The protocol also discussed the possibility of Russia providing Iran with 2,000 metric tons of natural uranium and a research reactor.[2] In August 1995, Russia and Iran signed a 10-year contract under which Russia would supply nuclear fuel, fabricated at the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrate Plant, for the Bushehr plant.[3]

Proliferation Concerns

Russian and Iranian officials insist the Bushehr plant is intended solely for peaceful purposes. They point out that the plant and its facilities will be under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as Iran is a signatory in good standing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). They further argue that under Article IV of the NPT, Iran is entitled to develop peaceful nuclear energy, including not only nuclear power plants, but the entire nuclear fuel cycle, encompassing mining and milling of uranium as well as enrichment of rector fuel, so long as these activities are carried out under IAEA guidelines. They also contend that the reactor being installed at Bushehr is a light water reactor, which presents a relatively low proliferation risk in any case, as its spent fuel cannot easily be converted into plutonium for nuclear weapons. Critics, however, wonder why oil- and gas-rich Iran needs relatively expensive nuclear energy, and note it makes even less economic sense for Iran to develop its own uranium mines and enrichment facilities when it can import reactor fuel more cheaply from Russia. They also point to the weaknesses of the IAEA inspection system, which failed to detect the covert nuclear weapons program in Iraq, which was well-developed and discovered only after Baghdads defeat in the 1991 Gulf War. Given Irans international reputation, specialists are not convinced that even the strengthened inspection regime which the IAEA is introducing under its 93+2 reform program will be sufficient to guarantee Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. The level of transparency under the NPT regime is simply not high enough to make such guarantees reliable.

The Clinton administration and Western nonproliferation experts were concerned about the proliferation implications of the proposed power reactor itself, but many of the projects listed in the secret protocol raised additional alarm, since they could contribute even more directly to the suspected Iranian nuclear weapons program. The centrifuge plant was particularly disturbing. Its ostensible purpose was to enrich natural uranium to five percent U-235 in order to manufacture power reactor fuel, an activity that is permitted under the NPT. But the same technology could be applied to make 90 percent enriched uranium, the raw material for a nuclear weapon. Under pressure from the United States, Russian President Yeltsin announced at his May 1995 summit meeting with President Bill Clinton that he was canceling the centrifuge aspect of the deal. Russian officials later denied that this aspect of the deal ever existed.[4]

The possibility that Iran will use the Bushehr reactor directly in its nuclear weapons program, although slight, cannot be ruled out under the current NPT regime. The VVER-1000 reactor to be installed at Bushehr will generate spent fuel each year containing more than 180kg of plutonium.[5] Even reactor-grade plutonium can be used to build a primitive nuclear device, if Iran were to divert and reprocess this fuel in violation of its NPT obligations. In addition, if Iran were to abruptly exit from the NPT at some point (as North Korea tried to do in 1993), and fuel burnup were reduced, the reactor could produce a significant quantity of weapons-grade plutonium.[1]

Uncertainty regarding the disposition of the spent fuel is another troubling aspect of the Bushehr reactor deal. The best option from the nonproliferation point of view would be to have Russia take the spent fuel back for permanent storage. (Russia is building reprocessing and long-term storage facilities for spent fuel from VVER-100 reactors at the RT-2 Reprocessing Plant at Zheleznogorsk (Krasnoyarsk-26) in Siberia, but as construction has been suspended due to insufficient funds and environmental concerns, it is not certain when or if these facilities will be completed.[6]) However, Russian environmental law appears to preclude the return of spent fuel from foreign reactors.[7] Russian officials have insisted that the radioactive waste resulting from the reprocessing of spent fuel should be returned to the country operating the reactor, and have not been entirely clear about whether Russia will accept the spent fuel for reprocessing or not. Nor have they clarified what elements of the reprocessed fuel they might ship back to Iran for storage, again raising significant proliferation questions.[8]

An even more serious concern is that Bushehr will provide indirect assistance to different aspects of the suspected Iranian nuclear weapons program. Moscow is committed to training Iranian physicists and technicians for Bushehr at the Kurchatov Institute and the Novovoronezh Nuclear Power Plant.[9] Collaborating with Russian specialists will greatly increase the knowledge of Iranian nuclear specialists and improve their access to aspects of Russian nuclear technology. Collaborating in the construction of the Bushehr reactor, for example, will yield Iran useful know-how in the construction of a covert plutonium production reactor, should Iran attempt to base its nuclear weapons program on plutonium. Cooperation with Russian specialists on uranium mining, milling, and enrichment could assist Iran in efforts to build a covert uranium enrichment plant (like that used by Pakistan in its nuclear weapons program). This is one reason why the centrifuge enrichment plant provided for under the original reactor deal was so disturbing. Russian centrifuge technology, while advanced, is less technically demanding than that of Western Europe, and it was feared that Iran could reverse-engineer Russian centrifuges, greatly accelerating its efforts to enrich uranium to weapons grade, if it chooses to take that route to build nuclear weapons. Even though the Russian government cancelled that part of the Bushehr deal, legal Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation could provide a cover for illegal transfers of nuclear technology from Iran to Russia, which cannot be ruled out given the financial crisis in the Russian nuclear industry and the relative weakness of Russian export controls.

[1] “Iran, Russia Agree On $800 Million Nuclear Plant Deal,” Washington Post, 9 January 1995.
[2] David Albright et al., Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996: World Inventories, Capabilities, and Policies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 355-361.
[3] ITAR-TASS, 7 February 1996; in Novosibirsk Plant to Supply Iran with Nuclear Fuel, FBIS-TAC-96-003.
[4] Andrew Koch and Jenette Wolf, “Iran’s Nuclear Procurement Program,” Nonproliferation Review, no. 5 (Fall 1997), p. 127.
[5] David A. Schwarzbach, Irans Nuclear Puzzle, Scientific American, June 1997, p. 63.
[6] “Russia’s First Dry Store,” Nuclear Engineering International, December 1996, p. 7.
[7] Izvestiya, 14 December 1995; in “Arrival of Finnish Nuclear Waste Protested,” FBIS-SOV-96-001-S.
[8] Mark Hibbs, “Iran May Keep Russian Spent Fuel or Take Plutonium, REPU, and Waste,” NuclearFuel, 18 December 1995, pp. 1,10.
[9] ITAR-TASS, 21 March 1996; in Specialists to Train Iranians for Bushehr Nuclear Plant, FBIS-SOV-96-057.
{Analysis by SDP, adapted 8/6/98 by FW}


In March 1996, Russia’s ambassador to Tehran, Sergey Tretyakov, said that Russia may help Iran build other nuclear power stations once Bushehr is completed, saying that cooperation between Russia and Iran on the peaceful use of atomic energy is not confined to the Bushehr project and that US concerns over that cooperation were “the problem of the United States, not of Russia.”[1] In Tehran on 6 March 1998, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Bulgak concluded a preliminary deal for the construction of two additional reactors at Bushehr. Minatom spokesman Georgiy Kaurov stated that “a final deal on the construction of the next reactors in Iran will come after we have sorted out our relations with Iran on the first reactor.” Apart from emphasizing that the additional reactor projects were contingent on the sucessful completion of the first unit at Bushehr, Minatom officials gave no additional details.[2,3]

[1] ITAR-TASS, 18 March 1996; in “Russian Nuclear Aid to Iran ‘Not Confined’ to Bushehr,” FBIS-TAC-95-005.
[2] “Russia, Iran, Agree on New Nuclear Reactors,” Reuters, 6 March 1998.
[3] ITAR-TASS, 5 March 1998; in “Russia Agrees to Build Two More Nuclear Reactors for Iran,” FBIS-TAC-98-065.{entered 8/14/98 FW}


The January 1995 contract signed by Russian Minister of Atomic Energy Viktor Mikhailov and Reza Amrollahi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (see entry under Bushehr Nuclear Power Station), originally included an agreement to provide Iran with a 30- to 50-MWt light water research reactor, but this aspect of the deal was subsequently cancelled.[1] On 6 April 1998, Yevgeniy Adamov, recently appointed Minister for Atomic Energy, said that Minatom would like to supply Iran with a research reactor, which would run on fuel enriched to less than 20 percent in accordance with IAEA recommendations. He related that a contract for the sale of the reactor had been drafted in 1996, but awaits approval by both governments.[2,3] Adamov downplayed US concerns about Iran’s nuclear program by joking that he did not want the recent signals of a potential thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran “to end in 15 years at the political level with the US delivering a research reactor with, say, 90 percent enrichment or exactly the same fuel that is used in weapons.”[4]

There are reports that in January 1995, Mikhailov and Amrollahi also discussed a potential deal to construct an APWS-40 nuclear desalination plant, to manufactured by the Experimental Machine Building Design Bureau (OKBM), but the status of this project is uncertain.[1]

[1] R. Jeffrey Smith, “Administration Concerned about Russia’s Nuclear Cooperation with Iran,” Washington Post, 3 July 1997, p. 3.
[2] Interfax, 6 April 1998; in “Russia Ready to Build Research Reactor in Iran, FBIS-TAC-98-096.
[3] Vladimir Mikheyev, “Moscow Will Share the Atom for Peaceful Purposes with Tehran,” Izvestiya, 8 April 1998; in “Adamov Maintains Predecessor’s Stance on Reactor,” FBIS-SOV-98-097.
[4] “Russia Plans New Reactor in Iran, Official Says,” Washington Post, 7 April 1998, p. A3.

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