09.11.2016 Author: Dmitry Bokarev

Russian Peaceful Atomic Energy Conquers the Middle East

452342342312The construction of the first Iranian nuclear power plant close to the city of Bushehr was launched by the German Kraftwerk Union in 1974 during the reign of the last Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. At that time, Iran cooperated in the nuclear industry with the USA and European countries. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the construction was suspended and Europe and the USA started to treat the nuclear program of Iran with suspicion. Various sanctions were introduced, including a ban on the import of equipment and materials related to nuclear power engineering to Iran. Later, Iran took advantage of the assistance from China in its nuclear research (while constructing a research reactor in the city of Isfahan). However, Chinese nuclear technologies of that time had not achieved their current level. Ultimately, Russia was the only technically developed country, which started to help Iran in its nuclear program.

In the summer of 1992, the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran signed a Cooperation Agreement on Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy and Nuclear Power Plant Construction. The decision was taken to complete the work launched in 1974. Russian experts performed unique work, which adjusted the old constructions of the German builders to Russian equipment. The VVER-1000 (pressurized water reactor) reactor type was chosen for the Iranian nuclear power plant, which had proved its reliability at many plants of Russia and abroad. The works started in 1995.

The project’s implementation has faced the opposition of the USA and its allies many times. They confirmed that Iran intended to use the Bushehr project to obtain its own nuclear weapons. Thus, many European companies refused to cooperate with Iran despite the agreements reached. Nonetheless, the work continued.

In 2011, the first power generating unit of the Bushehr NPP was connected to the Iranian power grid, and it reached the full capacity in 2012. At that time, the Iranian government announced that the launch of the nuclear power plant was proof of Iran’s strength and of its ability to bear the struggle with the West.

The official ceremony of the plant transfer to the Iranian party took place in September 2013. At that period, a whole range of international sanctions against Iran were in place due to its nuclear program. However, it did not create an obstacle to Russian-Iranian cooperation in nuclear power engineering. In fact, the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran have an agreement which stipulates that Russia obtains the spent fuel from the Iranian NPP (it also supplies the fuel). Thus, the plant is not a source of materials that can be used for the military purposes.

The new plant has left a positive impression on its customer.

In November 2014, several documents were signed in Moscow that supplemented the Russian-Iranian Agreement of 1992. Russia and Iran extended interaction in the nuclear field. They decided to construct three additional power generating units at the Bushehr NPP and another four in a different location. In the meantime, the Russian ASE Group that constructed NPPs abroad signed a contract with Iran to construct two power generating units. The ceremonial launch of the work of the Bushehr-2 project took place in September 2016. The launch of the second block of the NPP is expected in Autumn of 2024, the third – in 2026. Taking into account the tragedy at Fukushima-1, it was decided to equip the new power generating units with the improved VVER reactors with the most advanced safety system.

The establishment of the Bushehr NPP is a very important event both for Iran and Russia. It has become both a reliable source of energy for Iran and a symbol of opposition to the Western countries’ pressure. According to many participants, the Bushehr project also has a certain importance for Russia. During the tough years that followed the collapse of the USSR, the construction of the Russian-Iranian NPP was proof that Russia had retained its scientific and technology potential. The order of the Iranian government brought solid funds to the Russian nuclear sector, which it greatly needed during those difficult times. Many sources state that the Bushehr NPP was the starting point of the modern stage of Russia’s cooperation with other countries in the nuclear field. This plant has demonstrated the capabilities of Russian nuclear experts to the world and attracted many new customers. According to data as of the end of 2015, Rosatom worked in 40 countries and the value of its 10-year order portfolio amounted to about $111 billion.

One more important point is that Bushehr is the first and the only NPP in the Middle East. The fact that Russia was the first to bring peaceful atom energy to this region is rather important. Looking at Iran, many other countries of the Middle East have become interested in nuclear power engineering, and each of them is considering possible cooperation with Russia. In Autumn 2013, Rosatom won a tender for the construction of the first NPP in Jordan, which the joint Japanese-French Mitsubishi Heavy Industries – AREVA had put in a bid for. The project’s feasibility study is being developed now, and the finance issues are being discussed. According to available data, Rosatom will be one of the investors. The signing of the construction agreement is expected in late 2017. Meanwhile, the preparation of the construction of Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant in Turkey is ongoing. Russia is holding negotiations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In total, there are plans to construct 26 nuclear power plants in the region. They will be equipped with 90 atomic reactors by 2030.

Many experts are expressing concerns about it, as the Middle East is a very troubled region. There are concerns that constructing NPP may aid various extremist forces in obtaining nuclear weapons. However, the example of the Bushehr plant shows that this risk is minimized owing to strict control by international organisations over the plant’s operations and how the spent fuel is treated and processed. In addition, the construction of the plants demands that the interested states put in effort to maintain stability and appropriate international policy. The nuclear power plant’s operation promotes economic, scientific and social development.

All that may help to reduce the tension in the Middle East region. Thus, Russian nuclear technologies may affect the fate of the Middle East – one of the most important regions in the modern policy – in the future.

Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.