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Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council
Congressional Strategic Stability and Security Seminar Series

A Briefing on the Dangers and Benefits of Russia's International Nuclear Cooperation

July 19, 2002

Prepared by Ingrid Staudenmeyer
Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow

On July 19, the Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council (RANSAC) held the final meeting in its 2002 "Seminar Series" for Congressional staff on key issues in the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship. This seminar addressed issues related to the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) and Russia's international nuclear cooperation. Particular attention focused on Russian reactor sales and other nuclear and high technology assistance provided to Iran and other countries of concern, proposals for Russian imports of foreign spent nuclear fuel, and other issues affecting Minatom's future.

Remarks by Robert J. Einhorn, Senior Advisor, International Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

As in any diverse society, there are many forces at plan in Iran. Some are driving the country forward; others are holding it back. Despite the momentum towards democracy, freedom, and openness, most of the elements of Tehran's foreign policy about which we are most concerned -- including the acquisition of destabilizing weapons systems -- have not improved to the degree that many in the international community would have hoped.

Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile delivery systems continues unabated, and has even accelerated in the last few years. Despite its formal adherence to international arms control and nonproliferation treaties, Iran maintains active programs to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as well as the long-range missiles to deliver them. Iran is seeking aggressively to acquire equipment, material, and technology from abroad in an effort to establish the capability to produce non-conventional weapons indigenously and thereby to insulate those weapons programs from outside pressures.

Even if democracy succeeds in Iran, there is little to suggest that its quest for weapons of mass destruction and missile delivery systems will end. As long as Iran believes that its arch-rival Iraq is pursuing WMD, that U.S. forces in the region constitute a major threat, and that its own non-conventional programs bolster its aspirations for influence in the Gulf region and leadership in the Islamic world, there will be pressures in Tehran, whoever is in power, to persist on the dangerous course on which it is now headed.

A number of supplier states have abandoned potentially lucrative sales to Iran's nuclear program. In 1997 China terminated work on a uranium conversion facility in Iran and agreed not to engage in any new nuclear cooperation with Iran after completing two small projects that posed no direct proliferation concern. As a result of efforts by then-Vice President Gore and Secretary Albright, Ukraine likewise took a major step when it decided that it would not supply electricity-generating turbines originally contracted for by a Russian firm for the new Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran. The Czech Government also recently made a decision not to supply components for the turbine hall of this plant.

Russia remains the one significant exception to this virtual embargo on nuclear cooperation with Iran. The most visible nuclear cooperation between the two countries is Russia's construction of the 1000-megawatt nuclear power reactor at Bushehr. The United States has opposed this project, not because it believes such a light-water reactor under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards itself poses a serious proliferation threat, but because of concern that the Bushehr project would be used by Iran as a cover for maintaining wide-ranging contacts with Russia nuclear entities and for engaging in more sensitive forms of cooperation with more direct applicability to a nuclear weapons program.

While refusing to halt the power reactor sale, the Russians have argued that they are just as opposed as the United States to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. At the highest levels, Russia is committed to limiting its nuclear cooperation with Iran to the Bushehr reactor project during its construction period.

Despite these repeated assurances, Russian entities -- most of them subordinate to the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) -- have engaged in extensive cooperation with Iranian nuclear research centers that is outside the bounds of the Bushehr project. Much of this assistance involves technologies with direct application to the production of weapons-grade fissile materials, including research reactors, heavy-water production technology, and laser isotope separation technology for enriching uranium. Russian assistance to Iran's nuclear program has accelerated in the last few years and could significantly shorten the time Iran would need to acquire weapons-usable fissile material.

Einhorn proposed a strategy for U.S.-Russia cooperation to better manage the Russian-Iranian partnership:

Russian assistance to Iran should be limited to Bushehr exclusively, and only include providing fuel and training for the project.

  • Russia has the responsibility of providing the fuel for the project as well as responsibility for the proper storage and disposal of spent fuel at the project's conclusion.
  • Russia should encourage Iran to adhere to the IAEA Protocols.
  • Russia should press Iran to publicly declare its nuclear capabilities.

Einhorn noted that the United States could use U.S.-origin spent fuel which Russia wants to import as leverage to help seal the agreement with the Russians. He explained that these steps are consistent with the Gore-Chernomyrdin Agreement (which currently lays out the U.S.-Russia understanding on Russian-Iranian cooperation), they grandfather in the Bushehr project responsibilities, and set the foundation for further cooperation in the future.

Remarks by Igor Khripunov, Associate Director, Center for International Trade and Security, University of Georgia

Because of its shaky economic and industrial infrastructure, which like many other Russian industries has been undercut by Russia's economic hardships, Minatom is fighting for survival in both conventional and unconventional ways.

Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran began with a formal agreement in 1992. In addition to a contract for completing a partially built reactor at Bushehr, Minatom has also been receptive to a recent Iranian request to conduct a feasibility study for building three more--although smaller--reactors. The total cost is estimated to range from $3 to $4.5 billion.

Bushehr is expected to be completed in 2003. The plant will be run by a Russian-Iranian team, which Minatom plans to set up this year. Meanwhile, approximately 30 Iranians are receiving operational training at the Novovoronezh nuclear power plant. (As part of the umbrella cooperation agreement, Minatom is also training Iranian physicists and mathematicians at the Institute of Engineering and Physics.)

Russia has also been assisting Iran in developing a uranium mine with a capacity of 100-200 tons of ore. (In comparison, the Soviet Union extracted 30,000 tons of ore annually; Russia currently mines about 3,000 tons.) Iran hopes to persuade Russia to build a uranium enrichment facility and an isotope enrichment plant. The Iranian government continually refers to a similar project undertaken by Russia in China to justify its requests for these projects.

U.S. intelligence reports also suggest that Russian nuclear scientists are secretly advising Iran on how to produce weapons-usable heavy water and nuclear-grade graphite.

Despite protests from the United States, there is virtually no opposition in Russia to the existing and potential deals with Iran. The public, as well as most non-governmental organizations, seem to assume that cooperation with Iran is focused on non-defense projects and that Iran's civilian nuclear program will not be converted to military objectives.

Russia also has contracts to build new power plants in China and India. These projects are politically significant, because they strengthen Russia's hand in putting together partnerships with two major countries that can act as counterweights to U.S. power.

As noted, Russia is building an enrichment facility in China, and provides fuel for China's nuclear power plants. It also sells natural uranium to China, trains Chinese physicists, and supplies technology for the processing of spent nuclear fuel.

Russia's commercial activity with India covers the transfer of nuclear propulsion technologies and hardware for possible use in India's submarine program, the use of plutonium for power generation, the development of a uranium-thorium fuel cycle, and other projects.

And then there is Cuba, once a Soviet satellite. Although it is highly unlikely that Russia will ever raise the money to complete the long-abandoned nuclear power plant at Juragua, a Russian-Cuban commission is still reviewing the option. Meanwhile, on-and-off negotiations have been held with Indonesia over a Russian proposal to build a small floating nuclear power plant.

Minatom has been considering ways of expanding Russia's national power grid in order to export electrical power to Europe, China, South Korea, and Turkey. The latter would be offered a deal involving Ukraine as a third partner. Under this deal, Russia would supply Ukraine from its own nuclear power plants, and Ukraine would then export a comparable amount of electricity to neighboring Turkey.

Minatom is increasingly charged with taking on new functions, which, in the absence of adequate funding, threaten to undercut its effectiveness in dealing with previously assigned roles. With the resources and influence of the Minatom's (Ministry of Atomic Energy) defense component diminishing, the shots are now interestingly being called by a new brand of leaders in the Ministry representing the civilian component.

Minatom's growing reliance on exports has led to serious friction with the United States, particularly in regard to Russia's nuclear contracts with Iran. The dependence of this key Russian industry on foreign markets threatens to distort the normal supplier-recipient relationship, leaving Russia no other choice but to make painful and sometimes internationally unpopular decisions in order to win contracts.

There is a dangerous precedent for this in Russia: the emphasis on the export of conventional weapons. In order to survive, the defense industry has had to sell state-of-the-art weapons systems, often disregarding national and international security considerations.

The Soviet Union sought to maintain a wall of separation between itself and the West. However, today's Russia is increasingly tied to the West, financially, economically, technologically, and even culturally. The current generational transition in Russia will make those ties irreversible. These conditions give some room for optimism. The presence in Russia's nuclear industry of dynamic, meaningful, and well-publicized Western programs and investment projects could be a prerequisite for steering the steadily worsening situation in the nuclear industry away from a disastrous outcome.

Remarks by Sergey S. Mitrokhin, Member of the Russian Parliament (State Duma), Yabloko Faction; Co-Chairman, Russian-European Inter-parliamentary Working Group on Russian spent nuclear fuel imports

Mitrokhin began by noting that the nuclear complex in Russia was developed during the Cold War years with the primary goal of ensuring a nuclear parity with the United States, and that all Minatom activities were subordinate to that task. Russia has always given preference to plutonium for the production of nuclear warheads, and the so-called "industrial reactors [plutonium production reactors]" which are still functioning today.

Plutonium production was the focus of not only the military, but also Minatom's civilian sector. In the Chelyabinsk region there is a spent nuclear fuel facility which processes spent fuel from nuclear plants and submarines. The plutonium generated by this facility is accumulated and stored at special storage sites near the facility. Meanwhile, only hundreds of meters away from the production site, the United States is funding the construction of a weapons-grade plutonium storage facility. Mitrokhin explained that this new site is actually encouraging Russian nuclear specialists to increase plutonium production, and this only preserves Cold War mentality within the Russian nuclear complex.

The closed nuclear cities of the USSR were a favorable environment for the upbringing of Soviet specialists in the spirit of nuclear rivalry. Many of them, however, are not prepared for life under the new economic conditions, and have found themselves floundering in their attempts to adapt. Today there are very few young specialists wanting to work in the nuclear industry, and the older generation, lacking fresh ideas and mentality, maintains the out-of-date myths of the Cold War.

The intent to produce large volumes of plutonium, particularly through continued civilian reprocessing, remains unchanged within Minatom and the Russian nuclear establishment. This goal requires enormous financial resources which the Russian budget currently lacks. This is why nuclear managers in Russia are so enthusiastic about obtaining resources from spent fuel imports. Last summer, legislation permitting the import of spent fuel for processing and storage was successfully passed in the Duma.

As a consequence of this spent fuel processing project, however, Mitrokhin emphasized that he (and his party) believe that it will generate a huge amount of radioactive waste and pose a nuclear safety hazard. At the Mayak plant in the South Ural region, more than 500,000 people have already suffered because of the contamination associated with other nuclear activities. The population of Chelyabinsk region drinks water from wells containing plutonium. Children swim in rivers where a plant processing spent fuel dumps its liquid radioactive waste.

Mitrokhin said that it is noteworthy to mention that Minatom is the only department in Russia that has not undergone substantial reform since the end of the Soviet Union. This means that it remains a dual-purpose department, i.e. working for both civil and military purposes. According to the official Russian document entitled Strategy of Atomic Energy Sector Development in Russia in the First Half of the 21st Century, "nuclear technologies will remain the basis of defense capabilities in Russia."

The dual purpose of Minatom allows its new managers to use the shield of secrecy to undertake a variety of commercial projects without public knowledge or consent. Minatom's extensive secrecy makes it very hard to audit the Ministry's international projects and certify that they are exempt from corruption. Under the circumstances of complete confidentiality in Minatom, its international projects cannot be proven to be exempt from corruption. A recent report by the Duma's Accounting Chamber points out that roughly $270 million of foreign aid money that was allocated for radioactive waste processing is missing from Minatom records. In a situation like this, no one can guarantee that the foreign assistance is not being partially retransferred to other projects, including those involving the Russian military.

The campaign to pass a decision allowing Russia to import spent fuel is gaining momentum in the United States. According to Mitrokhin, this decision will have the following negative consequences:

  • Minatom will gain funds which will be used to manufacture more plutonium (including weapons-grade plutonium) and to construct new nuclear facilities.
  • In addition to the huge number of radioactive contamination cases already documented, thousands more will occur because of the storage, processing, and disposal of hundreds of thousands of tons of imported waste.

Thus, Mitrokhin concluded that a decision by the United States to allow exports of spent fuel to Russia will carry very unfavorable domestic repercussions for the Russian public and undermine its authority as a democratic nation.


See also:
YABLOKO Against Nuclear Waste Imports

Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council
Congressional Strategic Stability and Security Seminar Series

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