Iran’s first commercial nuclear power reactor will soon begin operation in the southern city of Bushehr, 35 years after West Germany’s Siemens Kraftwerk broke ground at the site. The power plant was ultimately completed by the Russian company Atomstoyexport, which took the ‘irreversible step’ of loading fuel into the reactor’s core in November 2010. The facility is part of Iran’s controversial plan for a full-fledged nuclear industry, and will be the first commercial power reactor in the Middle East.

The news about the reactor has worried some. In August 2010, former US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, warned that Bushehr is a “very, very huge victory for Iran” because it gives it “a second route to nuclear weapons,” adding ominously that Israel has only a short window to attack the plant.

Although Bolton is wrong—as explained below—the US has opposed the Bushehr project since the Islamic Revolution. Today, Washington is more worried that building a nuclear reactor for Iran will undermine nonproliferation efforts politically, rather than actually increase the risk of an Iranian bomb. In March 2010, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton asked Moscow for a delay in construction, which would send an ‘unequivocal message’ to Iran that it must prove that its nuclear programme is peaceful, but Russian officials declined.

But Bushehr is not, by a long shot, our biggest proliferation worry, and it can actually help stop an Iranian bomb.

In theory, there are legitimate concerns that ostensibly civilian reactors can be used for nuclear weapons. Plutonium from reactor spent fuel could, if extracted, be used to make bombs.

In practice, however, using Bushehr for weapons will be very difficult. First, all spent fuel will be shipped back to Russia. A standard practice for most Russian-supplied reactors, the buy-back clause is a great deal for Iran and the rest of the world. Tehran doesn’t have to worry about long-term nuclear waste storage and everyone else doesn’t have to worry that the mullahs could build a bomb with the extracted plutonium. Second, the Bushehr reactor is under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, which means that any illicit diversion of nuclear material will be detected. The Russian operators, on-site for another couple of years, would also notice any suspicious activity. Third, Iran has no declared plans for a reprocessing plant with which to extract the plutonium. Although Tehran could build such a facility in secret, this will unlikely go undetected for two reasons: Iran has a bad record of keeping enrichment sites secret and those are easier to hide than reprocessing plants. Finally, reactor-grade plutonium produced at Bushehr will contain unwanted isotopes of plutonium that make it a poor choice for nuclear weapons.

Opposing clearly civilian projects like Bushehr has been counterproductive. Arguments against nuclear power in oil-rich countries like Iran are flawed and, coming from the nuclear-powered West, inevitably seem hypocritical. It was the US that introduced Tehran to nuclear energy in the 1950s under Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace Program. Both American and European companies held contracts for large-scale nuclear projects in Iran before the revolution.

Sniping at legitimate civilian projects in Iran undermines the basic premise of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and feeds an image of nuclear-haves denying the have-nots. This not only detracts attention from real proliferation concerns, but rallies domestic support inside Iran for its entire nuclear enterprise, lending legitimacy to truly dangerous dual-use nuclear fuel technology, such as enrichment.

Furthermore, Bushehr can actually help nonproliferation efforts. It establishes good practices in a Middle East with a growing interest in nuclear power. The buy-back option minimizes the possibility that nuclear material can be used in bombs. Reliable foreign fuel supply undermines the justification for expensive and potentially dual-use domestic fuel production, such as Iran’s troubling enrichment program.

Sanctions and military threats have not convinced Tehran to give up costly uranium enrichment. Undermining Iran’s rationale for fuel manufacture will achieve more and Bushehr can be exhibit A. Reaching a deal among Iran, France, Russia and the US for refueling the Tehran medical isotope reactor is an important next move.

Bushehr is the first clear sign of a peaceful nuclear energy programme because it actually makes some commercial sense. Although this does not take away from the ambiguity in Iran’s other nuclear activities, the Russian-built reactor is a positive development. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves to focus on the bombs.

Author Info:

Ivanka Barzashka is a visiting scholar at the Centre for National Security and Defence Research at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. She used to work at the Strategic Security Program of the Federation of American Scientists, where she managed FAS’s interdisciplinary assessment of Iranian nuclear capabilities and potential.