The Iranian foreign minister announced on Thursday that the Russian-built reactor at Bushehr has reached critical mass and become operational. While there is a difference of opinion about the “immediate” threat from Bushehr, there is no denying that this is a symbolic victory for the Iranian nuclear program and a setback for the West in its efforts to halt the Iranian march toward a bomb.
The successful start up of Bushehr comes on the heels of an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report issued recently that gives voice to suspicions that the Iranian nuclear program has a secret military track that may be geared to develop an atomic warhead to place on one of Iran’s medium or long range missiles. And the start up of the reactor has been achieved despite the very clever and effective cyber attack using the Stuxnet worm last year.
There has been a history of trouble with the Bushehr reactor, going all the way back to the 1990s when the Russians contracted with the Iranian government to complete construction on the project, first begun by a German consortium for the Shah in the 1970s. Financial difficulties, the technical incompetence of Iranian subcontractors, political roadblocks, and problems with the fuel rods all contributed to the rocky road for the reactor.
The question with regards to how much of a threat the reactor poses has always been based on the reliability of the current agreements between the Iranian and Russian governments. Once up and running at full power, the plant will produce between 100 and 300 kilograms of plutonium a year – a by-product of spent fuel rods. Since as little as 6 kgs of plutonium is needed to build a bomb, the temptation for the Iranians to cheat will be great.
Whether they could get away with it is the nub of the matter. The Iranians have agreed that Moscow will supply Bushehr’s fuel rods and remove the spent fuel for shipment back to Russia where it will be de-processed. It will be very difficult to divert plutonium elsewhere as long as the Russians don’t deliberately look the other way. Also, the IAEA will be inspecting the plant regularly for safety concerns – a regime that includes keeping track of the fuel cycle at the plant.
This is the logic behind Bushehr being no “immediate” threat. But there are also legitimate concerns about Iran’s intentions with regard to the plant, and even some suspicion about Russia’s motives in selling and reprocessing the fuel rods.
Iran has threatened to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) several times. If they ever made good on those threats, activity at Bushehr would come under increased scrutiny. Within a few years, Iran will be technically capable of creating their own fuel rods, thus obviating the need for Moscow to supply them and consequently, removing the necessity for the Russians to remove them for reprocessing. With Iran in complete control of the nuclear fuel cycle, and no inspectors looking over their shoulder, the chance that the Iranians will take advantage of the situation is too great to ignore.
The question of not trusting the Russians to hold up their end of the deal and allow Iran to cheat is more a matter of politics as it is one of intent. Why would Russia do it? To make life miserable for the US and the West? The risk to Russia would seem to outweigh any value in allowing the Iranians to keep some of the plutonium from the spent fuel rods. No doubt Russia would be considered culpable if the Iranians were to use a plutonium bomb on Israel or the West. There would be unknown, but probably severe consequences from the rest of the world if such an event were to occur.
Another possible threat from Bushehr comes from contacts the Iranians may develop in using Russian technicians to help run the plant. It’s no secret among proliferation experts that Russian nuclear workers are prime targets of nuclear smugglers. Also, the Russians have a history of not keeping good track of their nuclear materials. Bought off nuclear workers might assist the Iranians in keeping some of the plant’s plutonium, and sloppy record keeping by Russia might never discover the discrepancies.
That last scenario is admittedly a long shot. But when discussing nuclear weapons, any possibility, no matter how remote, must be entertained. There is no margin for error – especially when considering Iran’s intent to develop a bomb.
The latest report from the IAEA would seem to encourage his kind of caution. Yukiya Amano, the director general of the IAEA, said in the agency’s report issued last March that Iran wasn’t doing enough to convince the world that its program was peaceful. While he said Iran was not diverting uranium from any “declared” stockpiles to military use, it was an open question whether there were undeclared supplies of uranium being used by the military at unknown facilities.
There is nothing new in this suspicion – even by the IAEA. What is extraordinary is that the IAEA actually came out and said that the Iranians may be trying to marry their rocket technology with their enrichment program. The IAEA cited information that was “consistent and credible in terms of the technical detail, the timeframe in which the activities were conducted and the people and organizations involved.” Placing the news from Bushehr in this context changes how the world should view what is transpiring there.
The Iranians were angry at the IAEA over the report and may have tried to retaliate. The Jerusalem Post is reporting that IAEA headquarters suspects that phones, laptops, and other personal communication devices of inspectors were hacked when the equipment was left unsupervised during facility tours. The agency was alerted to the potential breach after inspectors reported “unusual events” and suggested that their communications devices may have been tampered with.
Sources told the Post that despite precautions, the Iranians have apparently found ways to circumvent security measures used by the inspectors when they tour facilities and must leave their communications devices behind. It is unknown what kind of information the Iranians would have been able to access, but even routine observations by inspectors would be invaluable as far as preparing official responses to questions.
Might it also be some kind of retaliation for the Stuxnet worm that, by some reports, set the Iranian nuclear program back many months? Stuxnet was designed to attack centrifuges used to enrich uranium. The attack – thought to have been developed and initiated by Israel and probably the United States – may have knocked out 10% of Iranian processing capability, while scrambling other systems that led to catastrophic failures at the main enrichment plant in Nantanz.
The worm may also have affected the Bushehr reactor, but not to the point that it led to any lengthy delay in bringing it online. Meanwhile, Iran is claming another attack by a mysterious virus. Known only as the “Stars” virus, an Iranian military spokesman says the malware “inflicts minor damage in the initial stage and might be mistaken for executive files of governmental organizations.” This sounds as if it might be a much broader attack on Iranian government computers, but nothing is known of its capabilities or purpose at this point.
Despite international sanctions, the warnings of the IAEA, and heroic efforts by cyber warriors, Iran continues its march toward acquiring the means to fulfill its stated goal of wiping Israel off the map. Unless it can be dissuaded – or prevented – from reaching that goal, the world may look back on the Bushehr plant’s first steps toward powering up as a warning that went unheeded.
Rick Moran is Blog Editor of The American Thinker, and Chicago Editor of PJ Media. His personal blog is Right Wing Nuthouse.
Leave a Reply