Experts: Exporting low-enriched uranium from Iran is main problem in establishing Russian-Iranian nuclear consortium

Politics Materials 30 August 2010 09:09 (UTC +04:00)
The main issue in the proposal to establish a Russian-Iranian nuclear consortium is not the possibility of its existence, but whether low-enriched uranium (LEU), accumulated in Iran, will be exported, or will enriched in the Islamic Republic, experts say.
Experts: Exporting low-enriched uranium from Iran is main problem in establishing Russian-Iranian nuclear consortium

Azerbaijan, Baku, August 27 /Trend, T.Konyayeva/

The main issue in the proposal to establish a Russian-Iranian nuclear consortium is not the possibility of its existence, but whether low-enriched uranium (LEU), accumulated in Iran, will be exported, or will enriched in the Islamic Republic, experts say.

"The idea of the consortium is good that it can be used to export the LEU that Iran will accumulate, the senior fellow at the Center for International Security at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations of Russian Academy of Sciences,Vladimir Yevseyev told Trend by telephone. Otherwise, it can accumulate in Iran so much that Iran in some time can decide to create nuclear weapons, enrich and achieve nuclear testing. Somehow it needs to export this LEU, and such a consortium can do it."

On Thursday, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, said that Tehran offered Moscow to create a consortium to produce nuclear fuel in order to ensure the work of Bushehr nuclear power plant, and other nuclear power plants of the country in the future. The Russian nuclear industry said that discussing this initiative will be possible only after the commissioning of Bushehr nuclear power plant, but the uranium can be enriched only in Russia. At present, Moscow is studying this proposal.

According to Yevseyev, the idea of consortium is very perspective because the proposal, which was made to Iran on October 1 last year to exchange 70 percent of LEU available in Iran at that time to fuel for the Tehran research reactor, was temporary.  

"If Iran continued to produce LEU (which it did), this same proposal in the spring would not have that weight as in autumn because in spring Iran already had more than two tons of LEU, which makes up already 50 percent," he said.

In October last year, a plan was proposed upon which through the IAEA, Iran had to export LEU (3.5 percent) to Russia for being enriched to nearly 20 percent, and then to France for reprocessing into fuel for the Tehran medical reactor.

According to the initiatives of the IAEA, the starting material for the planned delivery of foreign nuclear fuel to Iran was to be 1.2 tons of LEU accumulated at Natanz that made up 80 percent of all Iran's reserves (according to the calculations of experts, 1,500 kg). Currently, however, Iran's reserves of 3.5 percent enriched uranium is 2,200 kg.

"It was possible to export LEU for safekeeping in Turkey, said Yevseyev. - But those that left was already enough to manufacture more than one nuclear weapon after enrichment. From this point of view, this proposal for the exchange of fuel was not of a principled character and did not solve the problem, but only postponed it for a future."

The consortium, according to the Russian expert, should use exactly the LEU, which has accumulated in Iran, otherwise it makes no sense.

"The West is not satisfied with the approach under which Russia will produce LEU, deliver it to Iran, where nuclear fuel will be produced, said Yevseyev. - If to use the LEU, which is available in Iran, to produce nuclear fuel from it, and to send it somewhere, then such a decision would be interesting for the West."

But in this case, he said, there are two serious problems: lack of Iran's major reserves of natural uranium and the question of profitability.

"Iran has not significant reserves of natural uranium, said Yevseyev. - It means that if such a consortium is established, it has no basis. For some time, it is possible to use the uranium, which Iran has, but these reserves are small, they are estimated at 10 years of work of the industrial reactor with a capacity of 1 GW.

According to Yevseyev, the question arises on what basis will the consortium be established, from where the natural uranium will be delivered?

Resolution 1929 forbids Iran to invest or participate in the development of natural uranium abroad.

"The second problem is the question of profitability, given that it is still an economic project, said Yevseyev. Russia is now considering the establishment of any enterprise for the production of nuclear fuel in different places. In order to make it profitable, such enterprise should work, for example, upon eight reactors such as Bushehr.

However, he said, considering that now in the entire Middle East, there is only power reactor - Bushehr nuclear power plant, it is not profitable to build such an enterprise in the region.

Bushehr nuclear power plant began to be built by the German Kraftwerk Union concern in 1974, but in 1980 it terminated the contract because of Western German government's accession to the U.S. embargo on supplying equipment to Iran. Since the 1990's, construction of the power plant has been carried out by the Russian specialists.

"Therefore, if the political decision is made, for which the profitability is not of great importance, and the main purpose of which will be to export LEU, the question arises - where to export? said Yevseyev. - For example, to Turkey, but there are no reactors there. If to export to Europe, it needs to produce in one region, export to another. Definitely there will not be profitability. But it is possible as a political decision."

These two problems will hinder the implementation of the consortium, he said.

According to Yevseyev, if the idea of a consortium is more a political decision, it is possible, because now to stop the Iranian nuclear program through peaceful means is impossible, so it must be somehow brought into some sort of framework so that it does not pose a serious danger".

"Given that Iran has accumulated significant reserves of LEU, and they are so large that if they are enriched more, then it will be possible to produce 2-3 nuclear warheads, so it needs to export LEU from Iran in some way," he said.

Accumulated LEU in Iran, can be, for example, used at the Bushehr nuclear power plant.

"In this case it would be clear where the fuel would go, he said. Russia can indeed create an enterprise that can produce nuclear fuel for the reactor and itself certify it. This will allow to withdraw LEU from use, transforming it into nuclear fuel and then Russia will export it."

According to Yevseyev, in this case, the question is whether Russia will be entitled to export or not?

"It is principle for Russia to export it, he said. If Iran would agree to export, then the problem will solve itself, since the chain in such a case would look seem to be: LEU is produced, later fuel is produced, fuel runs in the reactor, later the fuel is exported from Iran."

But, according to Yevseyev, such a chain in such a way might not work. "The idea is very perspective, he said. But I can already see the complexity of implementing it."  

The expert believes that the complexity of exporting fuel from Iran is that officially the fuel is Iranian, which should be utilized in the territory of Iran, but it does not have high capacities to reprocess the nuclear fuel.

West would oppose the creation of any kind facility on the reprocessing of nuclear fuel, as this may lead to the production of a plutonium bomb, Yevseyev believes.

"Russia can offer the following: after the nuclear fuel runs in the reactor, it will be exported to the territory of Russia, where it will reprocess it, will isolate from it those that can be reused, and export the material obtained to the territory of Iran to produce nuclear fuel, he said. This scheme is more or less real, but it is unprofitable."

According to Yevseyev, in this case, the national rights of Iran are in no way violated, and the international community is confident that the Iranians will not itself isolate plutonium and accumulate it to produce nuclear weapons.

The expert on nuclear issues Reza Taghizadeh also believes that the important question is not to establish a consortium, it is important whether the uranium will be enriched in Iran, or will be exported.

"This proposal is not new, it is a repetition of previously made proposals, professor at the University of Glasgow Taghizadeh told Trend by telephone. Also formerly Iran invited Russia and other countries, including the U.S., to join a consortium for uranium enrichment in Iranian territory".
According to him, Russia previously offered to Iran to participate in the consortium and implement enrichment outside Iran, but it preferred to enrich uranium in its own territory.

The proposal, which was made in November 2005 in Tehran by Igor Ivanov when he was secretary of Russian Security Council, was that the work on uranium enrichment will be conducted outside Iranian territory. But in November 2005, Iran did not have significant reserves of LEU, so it was impossible to speak about its implementation. In addition, by the time the production process wore an experienced character. Russia then proposed to establish consortium not in Iranian territory and Iran to take part in it. Iran categorically refused.

"Whether a consortium will be established or uranium enrichment will be implemented in individual form in the territory of Iran, the UN Security Council, the IAEA and the U.S. will not agree on it, said Taghizadeh. Yet there are no significant changes in Iran's position, and Salehi's words are a repetition of previous proposals."

According to a European expert on Iranian politics Rouzbeh Parsi, for the Western countries the main problem is the enrichment facilities.

"If a consortium deal entailed enrichment on Iranian soil that is problematic but not insurmountable," Parsi, an analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) in Paris wrote in an e-mail to Trend. "It would be a question of devising protocol that engenders confidence that the nuclear material is safe and not enriched beyond what is needed for a civilian nuclear plant."  He believes that this would be a matter of negotiations between US and Russia in order to ensure confidence in the process.

According to Yevseyev, the idea itself is good, but its implementation will be extremely difficult, primarily due to the fault of the Iranian side.

T.Jafarov contributed to the article.