"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Iran’s First Power Reactor Goes Critical

Peter Crail

After decades of setbacks, Iran’s first nuclear power reactor started operations May 8, according to Atomstroyexport, the Russian state company responsible for the construction and initial operations of the reactor. In a May 10 statement, the firm said that the reactor, located near the coastal city of Bushehr, achieved “the minimum controlled power level” and its first sustained chained reaction two days earlier.

Russian and Iranian officials said in May that it will take weeks for the reactor to reach full power and start generating electricity.

The reactor has undergone a long and complicated construction history with perennial delays. Germany’s Kraftwerk Union began construction of two reactors at Bushehr in 1975 under a commission by the shah, but the project was discontinued following the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Moscow agreed to take over construction of the first reactor in 1992 with work beginning three years later. Completion of the project has stalled several times since the initial deadline in July 1999.

In public statements, Russian officials have cited technical and financial reasons for the setbacks, but diplomats familiar with the process have said that Moscow also held up construction to place political pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.

The latest delay occurred in February when one of the reactor’s cooling pumps was found damaged, leading to a last-minute unloading of the fuel. (See ACT, April 2011.)

The technical hurdle occurred just weeks before a series of natural disasters crippled a Japanese nuclear power plant and spread radiation from the reactors, raising broader fears about the safety of nuclear reactors, including the Bushehr plant.

Florence Mangin, the French permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), raised such concerns May 5, citing Iran’s unwillingness to join a key international accord on nuclear safety. Azerbaijan’s Trend news agency quoted Mangin as stating that her concerns about Bushehr were not based on the reactor design, but were “a matter of global safety environment, regulatory infrastructure and safety culture.” The French embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for confirmation of and elaboration on Mangin’s reported remarks.

Iran is the only country in the world ready to start a [nuclear power plant] without being a contracting party to the [Convention on Nuclear Safety],” she added.

Iranian officials have defended the safety precautions taken regarding the reactor. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told reporters May 17, “Iran’s first priority has always been the safety of the power plant.”

The startup of the reactor also may carry implications for the prospects of military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Proponents of military strikes against Iran, such as former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations John Bolton, have warned that waiting until the reactor goes critical carried the risk of spreading radioactive material in the region.

“Once the rods are in the reactor, an attack on the reactor risks spreading radiation in the air, and perhaps into the water of the Persian Gulf,” Bolton told the Fox News Network Aug. 13. He said that Israel should have attacked the reactor by the end of last August, before it was fueled.

Although Bolton expressed concern that Iran might use the reactor to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, Washington has maintained for years that the Bushehr reactor is not a serious nonproliferation threat. In 2005 the United States dropped its initial opposition to Russia’s construction of the reactor after Moscow secured an agreement from Tehran to return the reactor’s spent fuel to Russia. (See ACT, April 2010.) That agreement is intended to prevent Iran from reprocessing the spent fuel to extract plutonium for weapons.

Under normal operations, light-water reactors such as the Bushehr unit do not produce plutonium of a quality appropriate for nuclear weapons. The reactor operations can be adjusted to produce better-quality plutonium, but such activities would be detectable by IAEA inspectors because they would entail shutting down the reactor very early in its operating cycle.

The Bushehr plant is the first nuclear power reactor in the Middle East. Several countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, recently have signaled plans to build their own power reactors in the coming years.