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Iran’s Bushehr Nuclear Plant Adds to Proliferation Concerns

In this fourth segment of the series on nuclear safety, we hear from analysts and nuclear experts on the question of whether Bushehr is a factor in proliferation.

The world community has increasingly voiced concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions. The Bushehr nuclear power plant, to some, is another means by which Tehran can justify nuclear related activities such as uranium processing.

Intentions questioned

A number of nations believe Iran is covertly developing nuclear weaponry. But Tehran insists that its nuclear program is a legitimate pursuit of peaceful nuclear power generation. Iran points to its nuclear power plant, which will start producing electricity later this year.

The United States is one of the countries voicing concerns about Iran's nuclear intentions. But history shows that Washington actually provided the genesis for Teheran's program. At the Ploughshares Fund, nuclear proliferation analyst Joseph Cirincione told us, "People forget that it was the United States that sold Iran their first nuclear reactor, a research reactor still in use at the University of Tehran." Cirincione continued, "And, the Shah of Iran had plans, similar to those of the Iranian government today, to build 20 nuclear power reactors in Iran. These plans were approved by the United States."

International agreements

Iran's justification for nuclear power is based on the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Tehran is a signatory to that agreement, which is explained by Nuclear Threat Initiative analyst Corey Hinderstein. "The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, is a treaty of almost all the states in the world, with the exception of India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Those states that did not have nuclear weapons commit to never acquiring nuclear weapons," she explains. "The NPT provides the right for all states to have the peaceful benefits of nuclear energy. And, that includes nuclear power, [and] the use of radioisotopes for medical, or agricultural, or industrial purposes."

Yet another provision of the NPT is that signatory states are allowed to enrich uranium, a key component in nuclear weaponry. Iran has justified enrichment as a way to make nuclear fuel, and recently has opened a facility in the city of Isfahan to do that. Iran already processes uranium at another facility in the city of Natanz.

One person who questions Iran's intentions is Center for Strategic and International Studies senior analyst Anthony Cordesman. "In reality, we do not know where Iran is headed," he says. "It clearly has rejected every bit of international pressure to halt its ability to develop a sophisticated enrichment program which could be used to produce nuclear weapons materials."

A spotty track record

Iran gets strong scrutiny because of its history of not following the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which watches over NPT compliance.

Corey Hinderstein lists some of the violations:

- "It had built centrifuges and enriched uranium in secret without declaring.

- It has produced plutonium in a research reactor without declaring.

- It was committed to announcing the plans to construct any fuel cycle facilities, which it did not do. So there were real violations of that safeguards agreement."

Other facilities

International nuclear experts say regulators are not as concerned about proliferation from Bushehr, which was completed by the Russian civilian nuclear agency ATOMENERGOPROM. At the U.S. Brookhaven National Laboratory, senior scientist Upendra Rohatgi explains why. "The deal, or agreement, between Iran and Russia is that they [the Russians] will supply the fuel, and they will take back the spent fuel. This way, it prevents any diversion of nuclear material for proliferation purposes," says Rohatgi.

Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities at Natanz and Isfahan, and the heavy water reactor being built at Arak, are what most proliferation analysts worry about.