At the end of 2002, Iran and Russia signed a protocol of intent to speed up the completion of Bushehr. There are currently 1200 Russian and Ukrainian specialists (60% Russian) at Bushehr and this will now be increased to step up the pace of the work on the plant.
Iran and Russia have also agreed to set up a joint commission to carry out feasibility studies on the construction of a second reactor on the same site, and Russia has agreed to supply the facility with nuclear fuel for the next 10 years.
Russia had initially undertaken to finish the plant in 2005, but later announced that it could be completed by the end of 2003. The plant is now scheduled to come into operation in mid-2004, in spite of initial delays caused by the need to adapt equipment left behind by Siemens when it abandoned the original project in the 1970s.
The first shipment of nuclear fuel is expected to arrive in Bushehr for loading in December 2003. The Russian company Atomstroyexport, which is building the Bushehr reactor, is expected to deliver the shipment of fuel intended for first loading, and Tvel would make subsequent deliveries. Russian atomic energy minister Alexander Rumyantsev said the fuel assemblies would only be delivered after the signing of an addendum to the original agreement, regarding the return to Russia of spent fuel, and the store equipped with physical security facilities to meet the IAEA requirements. The fuel agreement was signed last month and the security measures are currently being implemented.
The relationship with Iran is important to Moscow. The total value of contracts will exceed $1 billion, said Viktor Kozlov, general director of Atomstroyexport, and Iran has already paid half of this amount. To complete construction of the first unit, Atomstroyexport needs to supply an additional 8000t of equipment, and 20% of the support equipment remains to be purchased, Kozlov said. Work on 57 facilities at the plant has already been completed, and work on the remaining facilities is expected to be completed by May 2003. Kozlov stressed that the IAEA is constantly monitoring the work. In 2002, some 50 IAEA missions visited the Bushehr plant.
Nevertheless, the USA continues to oppose the project, and has accused Iran of developing nuclear weapons facilities. An expert level official in Washington, DC, told NEI that "based on satellite imagery, we are convinced Iran is aggressively pursuing the technology and infrastructure to support a nuclear weapons programme." The facilities are believed to be a heavy water production facility (near the town of Araq), which is currently under construction, and a facility for centrifugal uranium enrichment (near Natanz).
Iran rejected the allegations, insisting that the two sites were part of a nuclear energy programme. "In the next 20 years, Iran plans to build 6GWe of nuclear capacity, and these two centres are intended to produce the necessary fuel for these plants," said foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi. An IAEA team - headed by director general Mohamed ElBaradei - is scheduled to visit these sites on February 25 to install safeguards and assure the facilities are in accordance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. An IAEA spokesperson told NEI that the mission will also try to convince Iran to conclude the 'Additional Protocol' agreement, which will help the IAEA "assure the rest of the world of the absence of undeclared nuclear activities." The USA has questioned Iran's need for nuclear energy in light of its huge oil and gas reserves. However, Iran argued that it is more profitable to export these, and Rumyantsev insisted that Bushehr would be used for strictly civilian purposes. "Completing the project is the official decision of senior Russian authorities and we don't give in to pressures from other countries regarding our peaceful cooperation (with Iran)," he said.
Radzhab Safarov, director-general of the Russian Centre for Contemporary Iranian Studies, said that Iran needs nuclear energy to meet the industrial demand for electricity, while Russia's nuclear industry benefits economically from the work this project generates. Bushehr saved about 300 Russian enterprises from financial ruin and led to further contracts with China and India that in turn made possible the renewal of work on mothballed units in Russia.
Washington has raised concerns that once Bushehr is completed, Iran will freeze all relations with Russia and pursue an independent nuclear programme. Safarov pointed out that Russia and Iran have agreements that during the first three to five years of operation, Russian staff will operate the plant. Moreover, if Russia becomes suspicious of Iran's intention to use the power plant for anything other than peaceful purposes, any further cooperation will be terminated, including the recently adopted long-term draft programme of cooperation under which Iran intends to build another five or six similar power plants with Russian help.
Rumyantsev said that Russia and the USA are in 'regular contact' over the development of Bushehr. He said: "Our US colleagues are kept informed on a regular basis about our work in Iran," adding that they had been informed about the results of his recent visit to Iran.
Clearly, the constant pressure from Washington is making Moscow cautious in its public utterances, although negotiations on future contracts are continuing. Rumyantsev noted at the end of his Iran visit: "We can only speak of the construction of new nuclear power units in Iran in hypothetical terms for the time being." He added that, in the light of the experience with the first unit, it would be advisable to reject the 10% of the work already done by Siemens on Bushehr 2. "From the economic point of view, based on climate conditions and corrosion assessment, it would be better to build any further units at Bushehr from scratch."