U.S. uneasy at Russian company building nuclear reactor in Iran

Officials fear that Tehran will make weapons fuel

September 13, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - By many measures, the high-tech, state-controlled company called Atomstroyexport is a shining example of Russia's progress toward capitalism. It has won overseas orders worth billions of dollars and is seeking new business that would employ tens of thousands of highly skilled workers.

But Atomstroyexport - from the words for Atomic Construction Export - is also a source of growing concern for the Bush administration, which is pressuring Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to halt the company's work on a nuclear power plant in Iran.

About 600 Atomstroyexport workers recently began assembling the reactor and turbine-generator for the Bushehr nuclear power plant in the Iranian city of Halileh, on the coast of the Persian Gulf.

The Bush administration, and many Russians, fear that Iran will use the $840 million, 1,000-megawatt reactor to produce the highly enriched uranium or plutonium necessary for nuclear weapons.

Officials at Atomstroyexport, which serves as the marketing arm of Russia's atomic energy ministry, Minatom, insist that the design of the reactor and an agreement for Russia to acquire the power plant's used fuel render the project harmless.

Minatom has also proposed five more reactors in Iran over the next decade, for $6 billion to $10 billion.

"Russia in principle is not interested in the proliferation of nuclear weapons," Viktor V. Kozlov, general director of Atomstroyexport, said an interview this week. " ... Russia is cooperating in the construction of the power plant here because it is absolutely sure that that is not the situation."

U.S. officials have described the power plant as the most divisive issue in Russian-American relations. U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who arrived here yesterday, is expected to raise it again in his talks with Russian officials.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, in remarks last month, summarized the administration's skepticism: "We have long been concerned that Iran's only interest in nuclear civil power, given its vast domestic energy resources, is to support its nuclear weapons program."

Threat to U.S., Russia

Many Russians share these concerns.

"The construction of the nuclear unit is the preliminary stage which is obligatory for the future nuclear program, which will result in Iran obtaining the technology of making nuclear weapons," Maxim Shingarkin, a former colonel in Russia's strategic weapons program, said.

Highly enriched uranium and plutonium are inevitably produced in the uranium used as nuclear fuel in reactors. Minatom officials say their design minimizes the quantities being produced, reducing the risk that Bushehr will help Iran develop nuclear weapons.

Robert Norris, a nuclear expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, agreed yesterday that the Russian reactor design produces less plutonium than some others. But he said the reactors can still be used to produce such material. "You haven't eliminated the problem," he said. "You've lessened it somewhat."

Minatom pledges to take custody of the Bushehr's used fuel and either alter it or dispose of it, so the Iranians can't reprocess it - chemically refine the metal to yield the small amounts of plutonium and enriched uranium it will contain.

Control of the spent fuel is the critical consideration, Norris said. If Iran is intent on building nuclear weapons and obtains used nuclear fuel, reprocessing it "is well within the capability of Iranian scientists."

But critics here wonder what will happen if the Iranians ignore the agreements for spent fuel.

"After four years, Iran will have enough plutonium for 10 bombs," said Shingarkin, who now works for the environmental group Greenpeace.

Iranian officials note that Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, by which it pledges not to acquire nuclear weapons. Gholam Reza Shafei, Iran's ambassador to Russia, told reporters in February, "There is nothing about production of nuclear weapons in the agreement signed between Russia and Iran on use of the atom for peaceful purposes."

Radzhab Safarov, director of Russia's Iranian Studies Center in Moscow, said he assumed Iran was seeking nuclear weapons, in part because of the presence of nuclear powers in the region, including Israel and Pakistan, and the presumed nuclear weapons program of Iraq.

"I don't know for sure, but I can suppose that it would be reasonable and logical under the circumstances that the country would deal with its security properly," Safarov said. "And security in modern times is provided by powerful weapons."

Other Russian officials fear that Iran could export nuclear technology and weapons to Islamic rebels in the former Soviet states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Muslim separatists are also fighting Russian rule in Chechnya.

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