Air Cdre (Retd) Khalid Iqbal

Ahmedinijad at Busher Nuclear Plant

Nationwide celebrations marked the loading of nuclear fuel rods at Bushehr Nuclear power facility. In a remarkable demonstration of Iranian commitment towards non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, President Ahmadinejad reiterated a day before the loading of nuclear fuel that Tehran was ready to resume negotiations, on nuclear issues, with the six major powers that is five permanent Security Council members plus Germany. Ahmadinejad, however, stated that Iran would reject any calls to completely halt uranium enrichment.

Iran has started a pilot project for enriching uranium to around 20 percent, which is needed for a medical research facility. The uranium fuel used at Bushehr is well below the enrichment level needed for a nuclear warhead. Iran is already producing its own uranium enriched to the Bushehr level of enrichment.

Some Western nations unnecessarily keep on harping whether the nuclear fuel used in Bushehr power plant will only be used for electricity or would Iran, later on, try to enrich Uranium on its own, and thus acquire material for nuclear weapons. Iran has persistently denied such propositions, while asserting that it only desires to generate power with a network of nuclear plants, which it envisages to build.

Bushehr project dates backs to 1974, when Iran’s King Reza Pahlavi contracted with a German company ‘Siemens’ to build a nuclear reactor. This company ran away from the contract after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Partially finished plant later sustained war damages when it was bombed by Iraq during its war against Iran in the eighties.

Infrastructure of Bushehr plant overlooks the Persian Gulf and is visible from a long distance, with its imposing cream colour dome dominating the landscape. Adequate security umbrella is in place to cater for any eventuality. Soldiers maintain a round the clock vigil on all approaches leading to the facility; compatible anti-aircraft systems are also part of the overall security net.

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Iran is a signatory of Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As per the provisions of this treaty, Iran is entitled for accesses to all kinds of nuclear know how, material and technology for peaceful purposes.  Even then it has been subjected to discriminatory treatment. Its pursuit of legitimate nuclear rights has invoked at least four rounds of UN sanctions.

Any country that showed an inclination to assist Iran for acquiring any capability for peaceful usage of nuclear technology had to face tremendous pressures. Most of such countries could not withstand these pressures and defaulted on their contractual obligations.

Before reaching an agreement with the Russians to complete Bushehr power reactor, Iran signed pacts with Argentina, Spain and other countries only to see these cancelled under stress. Russia concluded a $1 billion contract to complete the Bushehr plant in 1995, however, it continued to drag its feet and lagged behind the time schedules. Though Moscow always cited technical snags for the slips, some analysts believe that Russia used the project to try to press Iran to dilute its legitimate nuclear program.

Loading of uranium fuel into the reactor at the Bushehr power plant was the first step in operationalising the facility.This was done under the watch of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It will take another two months before the 1,000 MW light water reactor starts producing electricity.

Bushehr plant is not a proliferation risk as the terms of the agreement bind Iran to permit Russians to retrieve all used reactor fuel for reprocessing. Moreover, IAEA experts will act as a watch dog to ensure that no fuel is diverted.

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While Iran was nearing the loading of nuclear fuel into the reactor, western media launched a sinister campaign to instigate Israel to bomb the facility. Just days prior to the loading of nuclear fuel, GW Bush’s Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security from 2001-2005, John Bolton, while working for FOX News, urged Israel to attack Iran “now” and said Israel had “eight days” left to launch a military strike against Iran’s Bushehr nuclear facility before Iran injects enriched uranium into it. Bolton warned that after loading of nuclear fuel it “will be too late for Israel to launch a military strike against the facility because it would spread radiation and affect Iranian civilians.” It was indeed a shame less media campaign to cause an armed conflict between the two states.

On the other hand, Iranian leadership displayed remarkable restraint and prudence that once again demonstrated that its nuclear aims are entirely peaceful.

Russia, while helping to finish the commissioning of the plant, has pledged to safeguard the site and prevent spent nuclear fuel from being shifted to a possible weapons program. After years of delaying its completion, Moscow says it believes that building of Bushehr facility was essential for persuading Iran to cooperate with international efforts to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons.

Though  United States no longer formally objects to the plant, it maintains that Iran should not be rewarded while it continues to defy UN demands to halt enrichment of uranium.

Owing to the concerns pertaining to global warming, there have been repeated calls for the revival of nuclear power generation. However, such renaissance is not in sight. Presently out of, 200 countries in the world, only 30 generate electricity through nuclear plants. Around 440 nuclear power plants operate in the world with a net capacity of about 375 GW. Roughly 16 per cent of total energy needs are met by electric energy; nuclear fission’s contribution to total electric energy has dropped from about 18 per cent, a decade ago, to about 14 per cent in 2008.  On global level, nuclear energy is only a small component of the total energy. During the next five years, on the average, 10 new nuclear reactors are expected to become operational every year. At least one hundred older and smaller reactors will most likely retire over the next 10-15 years. The view that the amount of energy derived from nuclear power, worldwide, will continue its dip during the coming years is further supported by the 2008 annual report of the EURATOM Supply Agency.

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In all probability, energy consumers, including many rich countries, will have to learn to live with the reality of energy shortages, especially during periods of peak demand. Such shortages could manifest in chaotic supply and power outages.

Hence it is necessary that all countries be encouraged to gradually switchover to nuclear power generation under IAEA safeguards. No hindrances should be created in the way of developing states trying to boost their power generation capacity through nuclear means. It would be worthwhile to institute a regime of incentives for such countries rather than discouraging them. Such a regime should be nondiscriminatory ensuring equal opportunities for all states.