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Iran's Nuclear Facilities: a Profile

by Andrew Koch and Jeanette Wolf
Center for Nonproliferation Studies
1998

Andrew Koch is a Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D. C., and a formerSenior Research Associate with the Monitoring Proliferation Threats Project, Center for Nonproliferation Studies,in Monterey, California. Jeanette Wolf is a former Research Assistant with the MPT Project.

Bushehr (Busheir) After years of searching for a supplier to complete its first nuclear power plant, Iran secured a contract with the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) to finish the reactors at Bushehr, which will be under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The $800 million contract, signed in January 1995 by Minatom chief Viktor Mikhailov and then Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) head Reza Amrollahi, calls for Russia to complete the first reactor at Bushehr within four years. 1 In February 1998, Mikhailov reaffirmed that timetable, announcing that he expected the power plant to be finished "less than a year from now." 2 The 1995 protocol stipulates that the two sides will prepare and sign contracts for Russia to provide a 30 50 megawatt thermal (MWt) light water research reactor, 2,000 tons of natural uranium, and training for 10 20 Iranian nuclear scientists per year. 3 The Iranian nuclear specialists will be trained at the Russian Research Center (Kurchatov Institute) and at Russia's Novovoronezh nuclear power plant. 4 Both sides also agreed to discuss the construction of a nuclear desalination plant, a uranium mine, and a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment facility in Iran. 5 In May 1995, the U. S. government said it convinced Russia to cancel the centrifuge deal during the U. S.-Russia summit, although Russian officials later denied the deal ever existed. 6 The light water research reactor deal has also been canceled, but Russia is providing limited uranium mining assistance to Iran (see Yazd). 7

Further Russo-Iranian nuclear cooperation involving addenda on the delivery of nuclear fuel, financing, and analysis of installations for the Bushehr reactors was discussed in August 1995. 8 The discussions led to the signing of a supplemental agreement on 24 August 1995, under which Russia will supply $30 million worth of nuclear fuel each year from 2001 to 2011. 9 According to Yevgeniy Mikerin, head of Minatom's nuclear fuel activities, the first core of low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel for Bushehr-1 would be produced at the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant in 1998. 10

Construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant has already cost Iran billions of dollars. The German firm Siemens and its subsidiary Kraftwerke Union (KWU) began work on the plant in 1974, but stopped following the Islamic revolution in 1979. At that time, Unit-One was 90 percent complete, with 60 percent of the equipment installed, and Unit-Two was 50 percent complete. 11 During the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq war, the Bushehr reactors were repeatedly targeted by Iraq, which bombed the plant six times: 24 March 1984, 12 February 1985, 5 March 1985, 12 July 1986, and twice in November 1987. 12 In an unsuccessful attempt to deter Iraqi attacks in November 1987, Iran moved a small amount of nuclear fuel to the site. 13 The attacks destroyed the entire core area of both reactors; Iran then sealed the structure of Bushehr-1 and covered its dome with sheet metal. 14 According to officials from West Germany's national reactor inspectorate (Technischer Ueberwachungsverein), before the bombings, Bushehr-1 could have been completed in about three years, but following them, it would cost an estimated $2.9 billion to $4.6 billion to repair the damage. 15 KWU officials noted, however, that none of the core equipment had been installed and vital components for the two reactors were not located at Bushehr. Two steam generators were stored in Milan, Italy, and Germany's Gutehoffnungshuette (GHH) was storing the pressure vessel for Unit-One. 16

Starting in the mid-1980s, Iran approached several nuclear suppliers about the possibility of completing the Bushehr-1 reactor. A consortium of West German, Spanish, and Argentine companies bid to complete the reactor in the late 1980s, but the deal was never completed due to U. S. pressure. In a similar deal, Iran signed a protocol in February 1990 with Spain's National Institute of Industry (INI) and Nuclear Equipment (ENSA) to complete the Bushehr plant, and National Uranium Enterprise (ENUSA) to supply the reactor's fuel. 17 The Spanish firms later canceled the deal citing U. S. political pressure and nonproliferation concerns.

Unable to find a Western European supplier, Iran turned to China and the Soviet Union for nuclear technology. On 6 March 1990, the Soviet Union and Iran signed their first protocol on the project, stipulating that Moscow would complete the Bushehr plant and build an additional two VVER- 440 reactors in Iran. 18 The deal was delayed, however, by technical and financial problems. 19 In 1993, Minatom and the AEOI signed a contract for the construction of two VVER-440 reactors at Bushehr. 20 That contract never entered into force because Iran asked for a postponement of the fixed time limits due to financing difficulties. Iranian and Russian officials have said that once Bushehr-1 is completed, Russia could also complete the 1,000 MW Bushehr-2 reactor and eventually build two VVER-440 reactors there. 21

Prior to the 1995 contract, Tehran made several unsuccessful attempts to procure components for the Bushehr project. Again, the United States successfully lobbied the suppliers' governments not to provide Iran with nuclear assistance. Iranian agents tried to acquire eight steam condensers, built by the Italian firm Ansaldo under the KWU contract, but they were seized by Italian customs officials on 11 November 1993 while being shipped through Porto Marghera. 22 The Czech firm Skoda Plzen also discussed supplying reactor components to Iran, but canceled negotiations in 1994. 23 Tehran then tried to buy nuclear power reactor components from Poland's unfinished VVER-440 reactor at Zarnowiece, but was rebuffed. 24 More recently, under pressure from the United States, the Ukrainian government abrogated a 1996 agreement between the Russian contractor for Bushehr and Ukraine's Turboatom for the supply of two turbines. 25 Minatom officials have subsequently said the turbines will be manufactured in St. Petersburg and that Ukraine's refusal to cooperate would not affect Bushehr's progress. 26

Currently, Minatom subsidiary Zarubezhatomenergostroy (Nuclear Energy Construction Abroad) is working on the Bushehr plant. 27 Preparation of the Bushehr-1 site is complete, the reactor vessel has been manufactured, and building of the steam generators and other equipment has begun. 28 Led by Igor Magala, Russian personnel conducted a feasibility study of the project in 1995. 29 Although there are approximately 150 Russian personnel working at the site, that number could increase to 3,000. 30

The Russian-Iranian contract entered into force on January 12, 1996, and calls for the reactor to be completed within 55 months. 31 However, without technical specifications for the German-supplied components, it is doubtful that Russia will be able to complete the reactor on time because existing equipment installed by Siemens may have to be replaced with Russian equipment. 32 Russia plans to install a VVER-1000 reactor which requires six horizontal VVER steam generators; the planned Siemens reactor was 1,300 MWe, designed to hold four vertical steam generators. 33 Metallurgical specifications of the German equipment differ from those of Russian primary-and secondary-side components, and the horizontal VVER steam generators are materially different from the vertical Siemens steam generators. 34 Failure to match metallurgical specifications in the equipment could lead to corrosion or other serious problems. 35 Unless Minatom can match these specifications, the cost of the project will increase greatly and completion could be delayed until at least 2003. 36

Iran has repeatedly asked the German government to allow Siemens to ship reactor components and documentation that Tehran has paid for. Under a 1982 International Commerce Commission (ICC) ruling, Siemens is obligated to deliver all plant materials and components stored outside Iran. However, the German government has refused to grant Siemens an export license for the materials or grant permission to complete the plant. 37 In response, Iran filed a lawsuit in August 1996 with the ICC, asking for $5.4 billion in compensation for Germany's failure to comply with the 1982 ruling. 38 German officials have stated that any decision to release information or equipment related to Bushehr would be "carefully weighed" and that Bonn would most probably reject any such request. 39

Uncertainty surrounding the work schedule, and disagreement on how much of the German equipment can be used, has caused friction between the two partners. Iran is insisting that it will not pay more than $100 million unless Russia agrees to a firm completion deadline, while Russia insists that it needs a down payment in hard currency before it can proceed. 40 Although Iran paid Russia $60 million in March 1997 and work is continuing, uncertainty over the Siemens equipment threatens to significantly delay or even derail the project. 41 Questions remain whether Russian technicians can overcome the incompatibility problems within a reasonable timeframe and budget. If the delays and costs are significantly higher than expected, Iran is not likely to be able to afford any new large-scale nuclear projects until Bushehr-1 is completed, meaning at least into the next century.

Assessment: Russia's ability to complete the 1,000 MW Bushehr-1 reactor will have a great impact on Iran's civilian nuclear program. If successful, as many as four reactors could be built at the site, giving Tehran substantial expertise for a military nuclear program. The training in Russia and experience gained from running a nuclear power plant will give Iranian scientists and engineers a greater understanding of nuclear matters that have both civilian and military applications, potentially increasing Tehran's ability to produce weapons-grade fissile material and build a nuclear weapon over the long-term. Such training would have to be augmented with additional expertise in critical technologies such as weaponization, reprocessing, or enrichment. The large amount of materiel and technicians moving between Russia and Iran as part of the Bushehr deal could also provide cover for covert weapons-related assistance or smuggling activities.

Furthermore, the Bushehr-1 reactor and corresponding facilities would give Tehran legitimate grounds to conduct research and acquire nuclear-related capabilities that could make a clandestine military nuclear program easier to conduct and conceal.

Although the most worrisome clauses of the 1995 Russian-Iranian nuclear contract provision of a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant and a large research reactor have been halted, other concerns remain. Russian nuclear fuel cycle assistance, such as building a uranium mine and providing 2,000 tons of natural uranium, could enhance Tehran's capability. The natural uranium, which does not require safeguards, could potentially be used to feed a secret uranium enrichment program or could be fabricated into heavy water reactor fuel.

The existence of spent fuel from the Bushehr reactor, which would have to be stored on-site for several years while it cools, would also be a concern. The Bushehr plant could be capable of producing up to 180 kg of plutonium each year in its spent fuel. 42 Although it would be subject to IAEA safeguards, the spent fuel could potentially be diverted or stolen from the facility for use in a plutonium reprocessing plant. Such a scenario is a long-term concern, as Tehran does not presently have a large-scale reprocessing plant and is years away from having the technical capability to build one. Even if Iranian scientists do manage to build one, such a plant would have to be declared and safeguarded by the IAEA. Furthermore, clandestine reprocessing facilities are difficult to operate and hard to conceal due to the distinct isotopic signatures of elements released during reprocessing.

The spent fuel from Bushehr will pose further proliferation risks, as its final disposition has not yet been determined. It may eventually be sent back to Russia to be stored or reprocessed, but Minatom official Yevgeniy Mikerin said that Russia and Iran "have made no agreements" concerning the spent fuel. 43 According to Mikerin, the Russian-Iranian deal covers only the front end of the fuel cycle. 44

The best option from a nonproliferation standpoint would be to return the spent fuel to Russia for storage at Krasnoyarsk-26 (Zheleznogorsk), in southern Siberia. 45 Russian environmental law, however, seems to preclude this. The Law on Environmental Protection, two presidential decrees, and a government decree regulate the importation of spent fuel. Article 50 of the Law on Environmental Protection (19 December 1991) prohibits storing or burying radioactive waste or materials from abroad on Russian territory. However, a contradictory law (Presidential Decree 72, dated 25 January 1995) allows Krasnoyarsk-26 to temporarily store and reprocess spent fuel from foreign plants. Following criticism of Decree 72, Presidential Edict 389 was issued on 20 April 1995, to improve oversight of importing and handling spent fuel. On 4 April 1996, the Russian Supreme Court repealed the sections of Decree 72 that provide for the importation and reprocessing of spent fuel. 46 Edict 389 requires that products of reprocessing be returned to the country of origin. Russian government Resolution 773 of 29 July 1995, also stipulates that Russia must return solid radioactive wastes and "other by-products of reprocessing not intended for further use in Russia." The law further requires that the process be safeguarded by the IAEA and that the country of origin has in place all the necessary regulatory structures as well as the ability to safely handle radioactive waste. 47

A second option would be to separate the spent fuel at the RT-2 reprocessing plant in Krasnoyarsk once it is completed. 48 Russian environmental law appears to allow this, but only if Moscow returns the high-level radioactive waste and separated plutonium to Iran. 49 However, the presence of separated plutonium in Iran, even under IAEA safeguards, would draw fierce criticism from the United States due to nonproliferation concerns. Furthermore, the RT-2 plant will not be completed until after Bushehr-1 is operating, meaning that sending spent fuel to Russia would be tantamount to storage and therefore violate Russian environmental law.

Yazd Province

Iran's attempts to mine and mill uranium ore have largely been conducted in the Saghand region of Yazd province. In 1985, AEOI specialists located over 5,000 t (metric tons) of uranium in the desert region of eastern Yazd province, making it one of the biggest deposits in the Middle East. 166 They also found 4,000 tons of molybdenum, a mineral which is mixed with steel to make hardened alloys that have nuclear applications. Although numerous allegations claim there is an operational uranium mine and mill nearby, IAEA inspectors visited Saghand in 1992 but found only a small uranium ore drilling rig that was at least five years from production. 167 Any AEOI uranium mining and milling activities would likely be assisted by University of Yazd experts, including: Jalil Shahi, chancellor; Mohammad Ali Barkhordari, dean of engineering; and Amir Hussein Koohsari, head of mining engineering. 168

Having failed to indigenously mine and mill uranium on a large scale, Iran has sought foreign assistance with these efforts. China's Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology (BRIUG), a division of the CNNC, helped Iran explore for uranium deposits. 169 The AEOI also tried to buy $18 million worth of machine-tools from INVAP, but the deal was blocked by Argentine President Carlos Menem in February 1992 due to nonproliferation concerns. 170 The machine-tools were part of a contract for a pilot-scale uranium mill and a pilot-scale fuel fabrication plant. 171 According to U. S. intelligence reports, Tehran received further advice and assistance about mining and milling uranium ore from Russia. 172 This assistance may be continuing despite Moscow's assurances to the contrary. It is not clear, however, whether the Russian assistance is controlled by the central government or whether it is being provided by rogue individuals and Minatom bureaucrats. 173

Due to the province's remote location and the presence of nuclear-related equipment, opposition groups have claimed that more nefarious activities are being conducted in the area. The Mojahedin-e Khalq resistance group claims that there is a major IRGC nuclear research center located underground in tunnels near the uranium mines. According to the Iraqi-based group, "the [Revolutionary] Guard Corps operates one of the regime's largest secret nuclear research centers which has been built underground near the city of Yazd." 174

Assessment: While allegations of secret nuclear facilities in Yazd can not be substantiated, reports of uranium mining and milling development activities appear valid. Iranian efforts to mine the province's vast uranium deposits have not born fruit, forcing Tehran to seek external assistance. Although Argentina blocked cooperation from one of its firms, China and Russia have either been unable or unwilling to do likewise. Further assistance will likely allow Tehran to acquire the capability to mine natural uranium ore and mill it into a powder form called yellowcake (U3O8) within a few years. The yellowcake could then be fabricated into heavy water reactor fuel or converted into uranium hexafluoride gas for use in a uranium enrichment plant. If Tehran continues plans to build a UF6 conversion facility at Isfahan, it would need a steady supply of yellowcake. Iran could probably complete a uranium mine and mill before the UF6 facility becomes operational, but if it does not, Tehran could use yellowcake it acquired from South Africa in the 1970s. 175

Tabas Located northeast of Saghand, Tabas is the alleged site of a secret nuclear reactor built with Chinese and North Korean assistance. North Korea is allegedly helping to build the reactor under the direction of General Myong-Rok. 176

Assessment: There is no open-source information to verify these claims. If North Korea is providing Iran with military assistance at a location in Tabas, it is likely for the production of ballistic missiles or conventional weapons.
 

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