Mark HibbsIran’s Centrifuges and Bushehr

Russia and Iran are conferring about the supply of new nuclear power plants at the Bushehr site on the Persian Gulf. Iran operates one Russian reactor there and building more could contribute to a comprehensive agreement between the six powers and Iran.

Let’s be clear that so far there’s no hard and fast deal for new Russian reactors in Iran, and also that there should be no concern about Russian sanctions-busting related to new reactor construction that is clearly linked to a comprehensive agreement between the powers and Iran. A news report that grabbed some attention on March 12, claiming that “Russia has agreed” to build two more reactors came from Iranian media–not Russian sources. More nuanced accounts said Iran and Russia were still discussing a “draft agreement.”

If we take for granted that this discussion is for real–since vendor Rosatom has confirmed that its deputy director was in Tehran this week to to hold talks about it–then the critical question for the future negotiation between Iran and the six powers is whether Russia will supply the low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel–for new reactors but also for the first Bushehr unit when Iran’s current 10-year fuel contract with Russia expires.

After Russia and Iran agreed in 1992 to complete the first Bushehr reactor, a contract was signed committing Russia to supply all the fuel for the initial ten years of operation, and committing Iran to returning the spent fuel to Russia. The reactor began operating in 2011. There’s no contract yet for Iran’s procurement after the first ten years.

Iran’s ‘practical needs’

What does this have to do with negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran?  Negotiators must arrive at what the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) calls “a mutually defined enrichment programme [for Iran] with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities, capacity, where it is carried out, and stocks of enriched uranium, for a period to be agreed upon.”

At the end of the day, the parties must decide how many of Iran’s 19,000 centrifuges Iran may operate for a specific period of time. Some observers speculate that the powers might agree to let Iran use between 3,000 and 5,000 centrifuges–with estimates trending in the upper part of the range should Iran agree to convert the IR-40 reactor from natural uranium to LEU fuel and then enrich the uranium for that and any other future research reactors under construction during the term of the agreement.

But the calculation of Iran’s “practical needs” for enrichment capacity would dramatically increase should it be agreed that Iran would make LEU fuel for power reactors. A Bushehr-type VVER reactor, with a nominal power rating of 910-megawatts and operating with a commercial capacity factor and duty cycle, would require about 100,000 separative-work units of enrichment capacity per year to meet the needs of refueling the reactor. Should Iran propose that it enrich the uranium for just a quarter of the fresh fuel that the reactor would require, it would need an enrichment capacity somewhat larger than Iran’s current population of  centrifuges. Should Iran aspire to make a lot more of this fuel, that could in its view justify development and deployment of more advanced centrifuges. These would include a model perhaps four times more powerful than its current IR-1 workhorse, and, as Iranian experts have suggested, a carbon-fiber machine maybe 15 times more powerful than IR-1 which apparently is still on the drawing board.

Because a primary objective of the JPOA is to lengthen Iran’s breakout timeline and, following from that, to strictly circumscribe its centrifuge enrichment capacity, the negotiation should preclude any understanding that a large centifuge population and an unbridled advanced centifuge R&D program in Iran would be justified by Iran’s vision for power reactor deployment.

Who will enrich Iran’s power reactor fuel?

Continued Russian supply of LEU fuel for reactors at Bushehr under commercial contracts would be the most straightforward solution from the point of spent fuel management, economics, safety, and successful negotiation of a comprehensive agreement with Iran. Were Iran to include substantial enrichment requirements for future power reactors in its assessment of its “practical needs” under the JPOA, the negotiation of a comprehensive agreement with Iran would overnight become imperiled.

For the foreseeable future Iran will not be able to make fuel assemblies for the VVER reactor design used at Bushehr. Last fall, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), asserted that a fabrication plant to make uranium dioxide fuel for power reactor fuel would soon be fully operational. But Iran has no agreement with Russia licensing the AEOI to make Bushehr fuel, giving Iran access to the intellectual property for the design of the reactor core internals, for the design of the fuel assemblies, and for the chemical and physical specifications of the fuel. Without that, Iran cannot make the Bushehr fuel.

Iran has no diagnostic quality assurance program for making power reactor fuel. Russia and Rosatom–with serious asperations in the global commercial nuclear power market at stake–would never permit Iran to load any domestically-produced fuel into the Bushehr reactor without acceptable safety assurances and legal liability coverage.

Russia has a strong commercial interest in making sure that there will be a Russian fuel supply component in any future reactor contract with Iran. Russia lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the first Bushehr project, and Rosatom sees fuel supply as an important route to recouping its losses.

The contract for Bushehr fuel delivery was signed for 10 years, but a 1992 bilateral government agreement to build the plant specifies that Russia will deliver the fuel during its whole life cycle, Anton Khlopkov pointed out. According to Article 5 of this agreement. “Russian organizations shall supply the Islamic Republic of Iran with nuclear fuel for the nuclear power plant being built there in accordance with the present Agreement for the entire lifespan of the nuclear power plant. The fuel shall be supplied in the form of finished sets of fuel assemblies and control rod assemblies.”

In negotiations over Iran’s “practical needs” for enrichment capacity, Iran may pull a joker out of the deck: aspirations to build an indigenous 300-MW power reactor at Darkovin. If Iran were to claim that it needs enrichment capacity to support this venture, the same dangers for the negotiation with the powers loom as in the case of any Iranian designs to enrich VVER fuel. Most caveats about Iran’s ability to make power reactor fuel for Bushehr would also apply–to say nothing about Iran’s doubtful capabilities to make critical pressure-boundary components and other safety-significant items for a wholly-indigenous power reactor project.

Iran Foreign Minister Javed Zarif and other Iranian officials have explained that, in the past, Iran kept secret its nuclear activities and sought fuel cycle autonomy because the regime was convinced that Western powers aimed to thwart Iran’s success. On the basis of the JPOA and flanking measures, were the powers to provide Iran access to the global nuclear market, Iran would not need a loss-making autarchic nuclear fuel cycle industry.

The geopolitics of uranium enrichment are at a crossroads and how Iran and the powers resolve this issue will have signal global imporance. For reasons which to some extent resonate with Iran’s national narrative, Brazil has embarked on an indigenous centrifuge enrichment program to serve a future line of power reactors. After several decades of development Brazil’s centrifuges are meeting about 5% of the country’s demand for enrichment services. On the other side of the ledger, South Korea, whose industry has recently favored plans to set up a domestic enrichment plant to supply fuel to about two dozen operating power reactors, may instead become a shareholder in an existing uranium enrichment plant located elsewhere.


  1. Ben (History)

    Good piece Mark, Do you know if the Russians are planning to complete the half built Siemens reactor next to the Bushehr-1 plant or will these ‘uncomfirmed’ two reactors be new build/sited elsewhere?

    • mark (History)


      I’m quite sure that at this stage Iran and Russia would want to build from scratch. It might make sense to complete Bushehr-2 in the same manner as Bushehr-1 since Russia and Iran would have learned from the experience of completing the first unit. But if they want to build two VVERs at Bushehr, it would make sense to build from the ground up since the VVER plants in one Rosatom version are designed as 2-reactor power plants.

      If Iran and the powers close on a final deal that lifts sanctions, then Iran will have the money to pay for a new power plant. That would in fact make life easier for both Rosatom and the AEOI. Russia lost a lot of money on Bushehr-1. One reason was all the expensive improvising that had to be done to match Siemens and Russian technology in that project.

      I don’t know exactly where on the ground the reactors would be but because it would be logistically sound to set up Bushehr-2 and -3 to share certain auxiliary facilities with the first unit, a twin VVER-1000 station would be not sited too far away. The site is large enough to accomodate more reactor construction.

  2. Rene (History)

    I have one question and one comment.

    1) How much does it make sense to focus on Iran’s “break-out” capability, considering that per JPoA Iran’s program will not be restricted indefinitely? I mean, is everyone going to be fine with a shorter break-out 10 years from now? Or is the assumption that there is going to be regime change by then, and that if that doesn’t happen, the West will again cripple Iran’s economy for expanding ENR? Of course it is desirable for the West to lengthen the breakout, even if only for 10 years, but I am wondering if there is a long term rationale.

    2) As with many other analysts, you suggest that b/c Japan/SK/Brazil/Iran cannot compete with decades-old fuel supplier in terms of quality and cost, they should rely on those foreign suppliers and abandon domestic enrichment. But from the perspective of Japan et al., isn’t their technological lag precisely the reason why they should keep working on advancing their ENR technology? In other words, the national interests of those countries compels them to narrow the tech gap, not widen it by abandoning ENR. This is especially the case for countries that don’t see themselves as an organic member of the West, and that have aspirations to be independent/powerful.

    • mark (History)


      1.) The focus on the breakout scenario arises from the threat perception of the powers. Their view has been that, if it is not possible to deter Iran from enriching uranium–the “zero enrichment” policy goal which the US, for example, embraced from the outset of the crisis and has now abandoned–then a second-best outcome would be a negotiation with Iran having the goal of extending the time it would take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon on the basis of a diversion of its declared nuclear program, in some scenarios building in the assumption that the more time Iran needed the greater the probability that non-declared activities might also be detected. This way of thinking follows directly from the philosophy of IAEA verification.

      Some analyses may include wishful thinking concerning how Iran will behave in 10 or 20 years, when an agreement may expire. But it is not out of the question that during the term of the agreement, Iran and the powers may conclude other accords which directly or indirectly would reduce the probability that Iran would weaponize its nuclear assets.

      2.) You write: “Isn’t their technological lag precisely the reason why they should keep working on advancing their ENR technology? In other words, the national interests of those countries compels them to narrow the tech gap, not widen it by abandoning ENR.” Read what my colleague Togzhan Kassenova published this week:
      If as you say its about “aspirations to be independent/powerful” from the “West” then you will see that Brazil’s narrative dovetails to a certain extent with Iran’s. But then we should acknowledge that a decision to enrich uranium by either Brazil or Iran has relatively little to do with the intrinsic logic of their civilian nuclear power programs! Iran has one nuclear power plant and an expensive overdimensioned enrichment complex. South Korea has two dozen reactors, lots and lots of high technology, but no enrichment capability.

      If ENR is in any country mostly about prestige, power, independence from the West, challenging existing order, etc. and not really about the intrinsic needs of the country’s nuclear program, it would be only natural for that country’s neighbors, rivals, and adversaries to be nervous and seek assurances that it isn’t about nuclear weapons.

    • yousaf (History)

      I am curious — your statement “how Iran will behave in 10 or 20 years, when an agreement may expire.”

      re. the possible duration of the long term comprehensive deal now being negotiated: how did you arrive at that range of years? Is it informed by discussions with mostly Western, or Russian/Chinese, or Iranian interlocutors — or informed by some other info?

      Perhaps some people would think, say, 5 years is a “long-term” ?

      Just trying to figure out what range of years different parties to the talks think are in the works?


    • mark (History)


      You write: “Perhaps some people would think, say, 5 years is a “long-term”’ for the comprehensive agreement.

      “Some people” = Iran? They told you that? Not Iran? Then who?

      Some other people might think a lot longer than 10-20 years is “long term.” Those would be clearly Western people.

      Case in point: A Western P5+1 official in 2009 tongue-in-cheek about the still-born Lavrov plan: “How long should Iran’s enrichment program be suspended? The Russians thought 45 minutes sufficed. We thought it should be suspended for 100 years.”

    • yousaf (History)


      No I have no information on the matter at all and not in touch with any relevant parties but was curious as to how such estimates are being arrived at.

      Others have floated different estimates. eg. Joe Cirincione in a LobeLog piece.

      I suppose the contrast in Western vs. non-Western P5+1 you talk about may become more pertinent these days.

    • Rene (History)

      Mark, thank you for your response. As I understand it, you think that a comprehensive agreement at least kicks the proverbial can down the road in terms of the future size of Iran’s enrichment, and that further long-term restrictions are not out of the question.

      BTW, I wasn’t defending the perspectives of Brazil/Iran et al., but saying that it is in their national interest to narrow the tech gap, even if they keep buying most of their fuel from abroad for cost-effectiveness. You point out that it’s natural for the West and the rivals of Brazil/Iran et al. to be nervous about ENR in those countries, which I fully agree. But this means competing national interests are at the heart of the problem, not unreasonableness on the part of Brazil/Iran et al. to want to advance their outdated tech.

    • mark (History)


      Yes, I agree, in theory, it kicks the can down the road as you say, barring any additional arrangements between Iran and the powers/anyone else which establish commitments that would influence the scope of Iran’s program.

      I would not use the term “unreasonableness” to describe a country’s behavior in this regard unless there were no strategic approach by that country to do something which would not be intrinsically justified from the point of view of the requirements of its nuclear program. But that implies that if a country is not “unreasonable” because it has such a strategic plan, then that country may not tell the outside world what that plan is. They will hedge, they will sandbag, they may lie, cheat, and steal in some cases. That’s where the ambiguity arises more generally concerning countries where the nuclear energy logic of their enrichment ambitious isn’t clear. That lack of clarity will lead the international community–and yes I use that term expressly here because if you look at the record of IAEA board meetings you will see that many countries, not just the “powers” have raised concerns here–to seek (including in the case of a country like Iran, given its history of deception vis-a-vis the IAEA and systematic violations of its reporting commitments, its revolutionary ideology, its governance record, and its military engagements in the region) assurances that it will not cross the line and develop nuclear weapons, including in a clandestine program.

      When you leave the rationale for enrichment which is strictly based on a country’s nuclear power profile, then, as you say, we get into the area of “competing national interests.” Beyond that we get into an area where, again as my colleague Togzhan summarized on Brazil, the international nuclear order is at issue. Brazil says it wants a more equitable order and it is challenging it in the nuclear area by doing the things it does. The “establishment” if you will responds by saying in some cases, okay, fine, but if we replace the imperfect order we have with a free for all where every country with a power reactor is trying to enrich uranium, then we have a major problem.

      And the “competing national interests” are not just between a country flexing its muscles and the “powers.” At my colleague’s presentation on Brazil at Carnegie last week, in the Q&A there were some pithy things that were said about Brazil’s nuclear ambitions by a couple of people from countries which are Brazil’s neighbors.

  3. FlamesInTheDesert (History)

    The problem here has always been whether iran could trust the west to supply iran with civilian nuclear technology and reactor fuel,the answer based on the wests previous behavior is no it cant,until the day the west proves to iran that it can be a trustworthy partner iran will have little choice but to develop a strong indigenous nuclear industry,I also think it would be wise not to underestimate their abilities to do this either

  4. Arch Roberts (History)

    Just to stir the pot, it seems to me that an unanticipated consequence of the U.S. allowing Japan “advance consent” to reprocessing and enrichment has a connection to the debate over what is an appropriate nuclear program for Iran. Japan agreed to lay out its program in detail in exchange for advance U.S. consent to use U.S.-origin materials in ways that comported with their nuclear development plans. This arrangement implied, and produced, ongoing discussions that added to the transparency required for Japan’s ambitious nuclear program to avoid international suspicion. (I imagine the continuing bilateral discussions on nuclear matters between Japan and the U.S. have been overwhelmed by Fukushima.)

    It is unfortunate that the insistence on zero enrichment prevented this rationality principle – matching capabilities to requirements, now forefront in the Iran talks – from becoming a real subject of discussion in official talks.

  5. Rob Goldston (History)

    It seems to me that the West may, conceivably, be able to restrict Iran’s number of operating centrifuges to ~ 3000 SWUs for the “last step” phase, but this is not at all plausible for the phase after that, when Iran is to be treated like other NPT countries. This then puts us in the territory where we need to ask what everyone in the NPT with enrichment plants should be doing at that point in time, including the Nuclear Weapons States.

    • mark (History)


      Can you clarify? You say:

      ++”We need to ask what everyone in the NPT with enrichment plants should be doing at that point in time, including the Nuclear Weapons States.”++

      To my good knowledge, NWS with enrichment plants are making LEU. We have declarations or pretty sure information that none of the P-5 are making weapons-grade uranium.

      Enrichment in NWS is mostly not under IAEA safeguards, but that is not for nefarious reasons. They have NW. If someone wants to pay for this, fine. The IAEA has been operating on the assumption that safeguards in NWS is not money well spent.

    • kme (History)

      Don’t several of the P-5 have ongoing HEU requirements for maritime reactors?

    • mark (History)


      Yes, US, UK, and Russia, but they are drawing down inventories. France is now making naval fuel on basis of LEU. There is HEU production in India (most sources say it isn’t weapons-grade) and is supposed to be used for future naval fuel. Pakistan continues making WG HEU. China is not. Most open source literature citations say Brazil’s navy (not weapons) will not use HEU.

  6. yousaf (History)

    RE: “…this is not at all plausible for the phase after that, when Iran is to be treated like other NPT countries. This then puts us in the territory where we need to ask what everyone in the NPT with enrichment plants should be doing at that point in time, including the Nuclear Weapons States.”

    It may be a fair question to ask and discuss — and not only of enrichment but also reprocessing — but, at present, there is no serious restriction in the NPT. Any enrichment would raise non-legal “concerns” if a nation were enriching to above LEU without e.g. a naval reactor fuel application, but in principle no restrictions exist so long as enrichment is done under safeguards, and no material is diverted.

    Also, any such restrictions would surface in re-thinking the CSAs’ language, as I don’t think people are keen about tweaking the NPT language.

    My view is that the NPT is flawed and disingenuous (since it ostensibly, but not really in practice, encourages the proliferation of dual-use nuclear technology) and a more stringent NPT 2.0 should be thought about.

    In a manner of speaking, that is what Rob may be suggesting.

    I think part of the disconnect on the subject came about due to Gilinksky & Sokolski’s paper — where, to my mind, they confuse the rules applicable to the Final Comprehensive deal with what comes *after* that deal (for which nothing is under negotiation — *after* the Final Deal timeframe [TBD] expires, it will be the NPT+CSAs that determine the rules):

  7. yousaf (History)

    BTW, saw that Atomic Reporters has a piece on how Crimea fallout may affect Iran talks:

  8. Rizwan Asghar (History)


    Very interesting piece. As media reports also indicate, the Obama administration is really working seriously toward a successful deal with Iran. So I was just wondering that if the question of “enrichment requirements for future Iranian power reactors” is really so important, can the US play any direct role to ensure supply of LEU fuel to Iran, in return for a successful deal on nuclear weapons issue?????????????????

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