12/19/2007 - 22:00

How Russia's nuclear fuel delivery to Iran benefits nonproliferation

Pavel Podvig

Pavel Podvig

A physicist trained at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Podvig works on the Russian nuclear arsenal, US-Russian relations, and nonproliferation. In 1995, he headed the Russian...

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It's possible that by delivering the first 180 fuel assemblies to the Bushehr nuclear power
plant in Iran on December 16, Russia scored a critical victory for the nuclear nonproliferation
regime. Early acknowledgement of the event's importance came from an unlikely source--President
George W. Bush. Commenting on the Russian shipment, he publicly urged Iran to now suspend its
controversial enrichment program, arguing that with Russian fuel, Iran no longer needed to enrich
uranium on its own. Of course, it's unlikely that Iran will stop its centrifuges--at least not any
time soon. But if Washington accepts the shipment of rector fuel to Bushehr as legitimate--despite
the continuing controversy surrounding the Iranian nuclear program--it will set an important
precedent that should help build a workable system of fuel supply guarantees.

The argument that access to a reliable fuel supply for nuclear power reactors will make it
difficult for states to justify enriching uranium indigenously is not new. No serious conversation
about strengthening the nonproliferation regime is possible without a discussion of the measures
needed to ensure that countries with an interest in nuclear power will have access to a reliable,
uninterrupted fuel supply. Many current proposals attempt to address the issue--from the
U.S.-sponsored Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which would supply fuel services to those states
that forgo their own enrichment programs, to an arrangement where the International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA) would manage banks of enriched uranium, which it would supply in critical
situations.

So far, the problem with all the proposals is that it's unclear whether consumer countries will
find the guarantees sufficient and whether the proposed arrangements could be insulated from
outside political pressure. All the proposed scenarios include a seemingly reasonable condition: A
country would be eligible to receive fuel from a supplier or a fuel bank as long as it is in good
standing regarding its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations. The problem is that a
country in good standing would hardly need a guarantee; it could acquire all the necessary services
on the open market. To really work, the guarantee must be strong enough that fuel delivery
continues even when a country's NPT compliance is in dispute.

Iran is a telling example. Until recently, it hadn't technically violated its NPT obligations.
But this didn't prevent Washington from applying substantial pressure on Russia and other countries
in hopes of curtailing work at Bushehr. In fact, in the 1990s, the United States successfully
stopped China's nuclear cooperation with Iran and forced Ukraine to pull out of the Bushehr
project. If Washington failed to force Russia to stop construction at Bushehr, it wasn't from a
lack of trying.

Although the U.S. effort to stop the Bushehr project was hardly the reason why Iran pursued a
uranium enrichment program of its own, it's easy to see how U.S. pressure gave a strong argument to
those in Iran who believed that Tehran couldn't fully rely on Russia's promises to finish
construction at Bushehr and supply fuel for the reactor. (Anyone who observed how the situation played out would be rightly skeptical about
guaranteed fuel supply proposals.) Moreover, U.S. policy regarding Bushehr demonstrated that when
involving matters Washington considers important, the United States is willing to set aside
whatever "good standing" ruling the IAEA may have made and use all formal and informal means to
stop the activity it doesn't like.

The shipment of Russian fuel to Bushehr hasn't changed the situation irreversibly. But it did
indicate that fuel supply guarantees may work in difficult situations--exactly when they're
needed.