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Potemkin Nonproliferation
Helping Iran's nuclear-weapons efforts.


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Henry Sokolski

In announcing their deal last Sunday to fuel Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, Russian officials boasted that it will help ensure that Iran stays bomb free. The contract, Moscow officials noted, requires Tehran to return any spent fuel containing weapons-usable plutonium back to Russia. The reactor itself, meanwhile, will be under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear safeguards.

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What could be so wrong? Plenty.

First, although it received scant notice in the press, the contract Moscow rushed to cut with Tehran runs out in a mere ten years. For the remaining 20 to 40 years of the reactor’s operation, Iran has announced that it will supply Bushehr with enriched fuel itself. Previously, Britain, France, Germany, and Washington insisted that Iran had no need to enrich uranium since Tehran could count on Russia to fuel Bushehr over the machine’s entire lifetime. Not any longer.

Second, although the contract calls for Iran to return any spent fuel to Russia, Iran is not required to do so any sooner than several years after the fuel is delivered. This leaves ample time for literally hundreds of bombs worth of weapons-usable plutonium to mount up in Iranian spent-fuel ponds. The contract, in short, does nothing to limit the dangers of Iran’s diverting enough spent fuel to a covert reprocessing plant to make not just one, but an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons.

This highlights a more basic problem: As long as there is reason to fear Iran might have a covert enrichment or reprocessing program hidden away, there’s a danger fresh or spent fuel from Bushehr could be diverted to make bombs before inspectors could detect or block the diversion. This means that Iran could seize this material openly, withdraw from the NPT, and then make bombs or, alternatively, steal the material, covertly make bombs, and then withdraw.

Last October, my center released a two-year nuclear study that assessed these risks. It concluded that Iranian reactor operators could seize fuel from Bushehr without IAEA inspectors necessarily knowing, convert it into weapons usable fuel, and make a bomb in a matter of weeks. The report’s diversion scenarios were quite detailed. They were removed from early drafts of the report at the U.S. government’s request. The reason? The scenarios, U.S. officials complained, were “too graphic” and might serve as a manual for would-be bomb makers. Since the report’s publication, IAEA officials have privately confirmed that the scenarios presented were worrisome and more than plausible.

What, then, do these gaps in the Russian contract suggest the U.S. and others should do avoid future Irans?

First, get as many nations as possible to agree that any nation that violates the NPT and then withdraws to make bombs will be treated as an international outlaw until it either surrenders or dismantles what nuclear facilities it gained under the NPT. This country-neutral rule, which the U.S., France, and the IAEA’s director general have already backed, needs to be adopted and applied in the case of North Korea lest Iran and Iran’s neighbors conclude that they too can acquire all they need to make bombs and withdraw with impunity from the NPT.

Second, clarify that the NPT is a nonproliferation treaty and, as such, does not guarantee members an “inalienable right” to unnecessary, unsafeguardable nuclear technology, such as Iran’s uneconomical enrichment plant. In addition, the IAEA needs to make sure all large reactors using lightly enriched uranium can be safeguarded against the undetected theft of fresh or spent fuel. This means installing upgraded cameras at the reactor sites that will let the IAEA know instantly if the cameras are functioning or have been tampered with, and that can afford near-real time, wide-area surveillance. It also means putting at least one full-time inspector at each reactor site.

Finally, we need to make sure any positive support the U.S. gives to the European’s current negotiations with Iran (e.g., favoring World Trade Organization membership, opening up U.S. investment or trade, etc.) is conditioned on agreement to specific dates by which Iran must forswear and dismantle any and all enrichment or reprocessing facilities. The U.S. and others also need to agree on what they will do with Iran if it fails to meet these deadlines. At present, no such understanding exists. Indeed, all we have is Russia’s weak fuel deal–a contract that, if implemented by itself, will only accelerate Iran’s nuclear-weapons efforts and encourage other would be bomb makers to model their own actions after Iran’s.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and co-editor with Patrick Clawson of Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran (forthcoming).



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