Iran to assume control of Bushehr nuclear plant

The Islamic Republic’s only power-producing facility was operated by Russians; handover ceremony scheduled for Monday

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Illustrative: The existing nuclear facility in Bushehr province, Iran (photo credit: AP/Mehr News Agency/Majid Asgaripour/File)
Illustrative: The existing nuclear facility in Bushehr province, Iran (photo credit: AP/Mehr News Agency/Majid Asgaripour/File)

Iran is set to assume control of its Bushehr civilian nuclear reactor on Monday. The plant, built by Russia, has been operated by Russian technicians in an agreement sanctioned by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“The 1,000-megawatt Bushehr nuclear power station will be handed over to Iran” Monday, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told the official IRNA news agency, according to AFP’s translation. “But for another two years, it will be under Russian guarantee and a number of Russian experts will remain in place to give advice and technical assistance.”

Construction of the Bushehr plant, on the coast of the Persian Gulf, was initiated by German companies in the 1970s, but work was halted as the Islamic Revolution swept Iran. In 1995, Russia agreed to complete the construction of the facility in a deal estimated to be worth $1 billion.

Russia and Iran signed an agreement in 2005 making Moscow the sole supplier of nuclear fuel for the site, and requiring spent fuel to be returned to Russia. After a series of delays, Russia sent the first delivery of fuel in December 2007. The plant became fully operational in early 2011, and started supplying electricity to the national grid in September of that year.

In August 2012, it was announced that the plant was finally operating at full capacity.

In June 2013, two IAEA diplomats leaked information that Bushehr had been damaged in a series of earthquakes, claiming that long cracks were apparent in at least one section of the structure.

The facility is a cornerstone of Iran’s drive to become a technological leader among Muslim nations, with efforts such as a space program and long-range missile development.

The United States and some of its allies believe the Bushehr plant is part of an Iranian nuclear program bent on developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies the accusation.

Recent days have seen guarded Western optimism regarding the prospect of a breakthrough in nuclear talks with Iran. There have been indications that Iranian President Hasan Rouhani may meet his American counterpart, Barack Obama, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York this week.

At the General Assembly, Rouhani is to make his first appearance as president on the world stage. US officials will be watching the visit closely for signs that he intends to thaw relations with the West and take a more moderate line in negotiations on his country’s disputed nuclear program.

Negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program have hit a deadlock concerning the future of the 20-percent-enriched uranium being produced at the formerly secret Fordo plant. Iran wants to simply agree to a freeze in enrichment in exchange for lifting the stringent sanctions against Tehran. The US wants the plant to be dismantled altogether, and wants Iran to hand over all of its highly enriched uranium.

Uranium for civilian-energy purposes requires 5% enrichment, whereas uranium must be enriched to 20% or greater to be considered weapons-grade.

Washington does not see Iranian suspension of enrichment as meeting its demands, but as a confidence-building measure.

The Obama administration has indicated that it would be willing to consider discussing relaxing some sanctions if enrichment is suspended. It has not publicly signaled how conciliatory it is willing to be.

Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report. 

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