Friday, 20 August 2010

Bushehr nuclear plant to come on stream in September

News emerged in mid August that the fuelling of the Bushehr nuclear reactor was to start on 22nd August. The plant is planned to come on stream on 16th September. Though the process of fuelling and eventual fully-fledged operation of Iran's first nuclear power plant will take a few months, the initiation of the final commissioning will have a significant emotional impact in Iran.

The construction of the Bushehr power plant began in 1975 – before the Islamic Revolution. Originally led by French contractors, the work was interrupted after the 1979 Revolution. Later, in 1982, work was resumed by German contractors; however, under US pressure the project was also abandoned by the German company. In the 1990s, it was taken over by Russian contractors, which committed to deliver the plant by the end of 2000. The 10-year delay in its final delivery as well as the decades-long process of Iran getting its first nuclear power plant have left a deep scar on the Iranian psyche, partly explaining the Iranian overnment's distrust of external promises in he field of nuclear technology. Nonetheless, now that the operation is in sight, the consequences of the commissioning of this plant should be assessed. In this context, one needs to consider the following:

> First, even at full capacity, the electricity generated at Bushehr will only have a minimal effect on Iran's energy balance. Bushehr's 250MW nominal capacity will at best cover 3 per cent of Iran's runaway domestic electricity consumption. Nevertheless, Iran's ambitious plans in nuclear power generation (a total of 7,000MW from seven new plants) will be taken more seriously in the future;

> Second, some analysts argue that the commissioning of Bushehr will give the government the opportunity to show that Iran has reached its nuclear goals despite external pressure. This sentiment is reflected in the following statement by Emad Hosseini, spokesperson of the Majles Energy Commission: “The move indicates that pressure exerted by western countries on Iran and UNSC [UN Security Council] sanctions have left no impact on the enrichment process as well as launch of the nuclear plant.” For the man in the street, the news that Bushehr has become operational will translate into Iran having achieved its goals in “nuclear technology”. In other words, the government may use this opportunity to declare victory in the nuclear stand-off and then announce a new round of negotiations – this time from a position of strength, at least in its domestic discourse. This could also explain why President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has suggested a new round of negotiations for the end of September;

> Third, and ironically, the commencement of Bushehr operations will also improve the bargaining position of the external powers, especially Russia. In fact, Russia and others can argue that the final delivery of Bushehr would indicate that the external powers have nothing against the development of a civilian nuclear programme in Iran. This argument could partly facilitate the emerging negotiations about a nuclear fuel swap between Iran and the so-called Vienna Group (Russia, US and France). A positive outcome in those negotiations could facilitate further talks and an easing of tensions. That is why the planned commissioning of Bushehr was also welcomed by the US State Department. All in all, the commissioning of Bushehr could de-escalate recent tensions over the Iranian nuclear programme and pave the way for new negotiations.

Consequently, it can be said that both domestically and externally, the chances of a resolution to the Iranian nuclear stand-off will increase dramatically as a result. However, the success of the new round of talks will depend on many other factor. It is too early to predict the final outcome.

For more news and expert analysis about Iran, please see Iran Strategic Focus.

© 2010 Menas Associates

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