U.S. Funds Institutes Building Iran Reactor

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Energy Department is subsidizing two Russian nuclear institutes that are building important parts of a reactor in Iran whose construction the United States spent years trying to stop, according to a House of Representatives committee.

The institutes, both in Nizhny Novgorod, gave U.S. officials copies of sales presentations that listed the Bushehr reactor, which Russia has agreed to fuel, as one of their projects. One institute is providing control systems, including control room equipment, and the other, hundreds of pumps and ventilation fans.

The Energy Department is subsidizing the institutes under the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention, a program set up in 1994 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The program was intended to prevent newly impoverished scientists and their institutions from selling expertise to states or terrorist groups that want nuclear weapons.

The United States supplements the salaries of scientists and pays overhead at those institutes, according to the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

It was not immediately clear whether the Energy Department was contributing to the salaries of the very scientists involved in the Bushehr reactor project. Two congressmen, John Dingell, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupak, chairman of that committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee -- asked that question in a letter sent Wednesday to Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman.

"What policy logic justifies D.O.E. funding Russian institutes which are providing nuclear technology to Iran?" the letter asked. "How does this advance our nonproliferation goals?"

Dingell, in a telephone interview, pointed out that the U.S. State Department has accused Iran of using the Bushehr reactor as a cover for obtaining nuclear technology useful in a weapons program. And, he said, "We've got a bunch of federal laws that impose sanctions on U.S. companies that develop Iran's oil."

But under the nonproliferation program, he said, "We've got U.S. money providing assistance to help develop a reactor that we're busy denouncing."

The Energy Department said in a statement last week, "We are confident that none of the projects cited by the House committee, or any of the department's scientist engagement projects with Russia, support nuclear work in Iran."

The statement added, "We take all measures necessary to ensure that neither money nor technology falls into the hands of countries of concern."

Individual projects are cleared by the Defense Department, the State Department and intelligence agencies, the Energy Department said.

The U.S. Energy Department has approved projects with the two institutes worth $4 million, according to the letter sent by the committee chairmen to Bodman on Wednesday, but the Energy Department official said that sum included a $1 million project that might have been canceled.

Because of the design of Bushehr, a civilian electric power plant, it would be cumbersome to recover the plutonium that is the byproduct of its operations. In addition, Russia has announced that it will take back the spent fuel from the plant, thus making the plutonium unavailable to Iran.

But the United States has looked with some alarm at Iran acquiring nuclear expertise. Iran wants to build a plant to enrich uranium and make its own reactor fuel, saying it wants to do so for civilian purposes. U.S. officials complain that the enrichment technology could also be used to make warheads.

"Only this administration would complain about proliferation in Iran, as part of President Bush's axis of evil, and then finance it with American taxpayer dollars," Dingell said.

Stupak called it "schizophrenic foreign policy."

"We should not be doing business with institutes that help promote Iran's nuclear ambitions," he said.

The United States pays for a variety of projects at numerous "institutes" in Russia and other former Soviet countries. For example, at the Scientific Research Institute of Measuring Systems in Nizhny Novgorod, which is making control-room equipment for Bushehr, the United States is paying $1.15 million for a project for radar mapping of geological structures, which could be used to locate underground mineral deposits.