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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia: Nuclear Fuel Will Not Stay in Iran

Russia will take back spent nuclear fuel from the atomic power station it is building in Iran, even though language to that effect was omitted from the 1992 agreement to construct the plant, Nuclear Power Ministry officials said Thursday.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said work is under way on a supplementary agreement that will ensure in writing Iran's commitment to return spent fuel from the Bushehr civilian nuclear power plant. They added that Teheran has consented to these terms.

Such fuel has been a major concern for both Washington and nonproliferation experts because it could be converted into weapons-grade radioactive material and could thereby accelerate Iran's efforts to develop its own nuclear weapons.

The ministry officials explained that the original contract did not include such a clause because it was signed at about the same time as environment-friendly legislation banning the import of nuclear waste. In July of last year, however, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a hotly debated bill allowing imports of spent nuclear fuel, opening the way for changes to the Iran deal.

The clarification came in response to reports that Russia had failed to secure guarantees from Iran that the latter would return spent fuel from the Bushehr plant, an $800 million project due to be completed in 2003 or 2004. Last month, documents identified as a draft report for internal use by the Russian government were posted on the web site of the local Greenpeace office. The documents, which a Greenpeace official said had come from a state agency other than the Nuclear Power Ministry and are dated February 2002, say that the contract with Iran does not cover the issue of re-importing spent nuclear fuel from Bushehr to Russia but that negotiations on the problem are under way.

Senior U.S. diplomats have said that Iran is emerging as the biggest problem on the U.S.-Russian agenda, and talks on the issue have been progressing more slowly than Washington would like. In addition to the spent fuel, points of contention have included training and fuel-cycle technology that Russian experts could provide to Iran's nuclear program, as well as the transfer of missile technology and conventional weapons sales.

Asked about Iran during his post-summit press conference with U.S. President George Bush, Putin reiterated the Kremlin's position that Bushehr was a civilian project and did not increase Iran's chances of developing weapons of mass destruction.

Two prominent U.S. experts on nonproliferation were in Moscow on Thursday to present a new framework for improving U.S.-Russian cooperation and helping end the two nations' deadlock over Iran.

Robert Einhorn, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Russia should limit its nuclear cooperation with Iran to providing power reactors and should commit to supply all fuel for the reactors and then take it back. Moscow should also pressure Iran to allow more intrusive inspections and to give up all nuclear fuel cycle activities, such as uranium enrichment and fuel fabrication.

Washington, according to Einhorn and his colleague Gary Samore of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, must mitigate its objections to the Bushehr project, which, in the past, has been rejected outright.

"The problem with this zero-tolerance approach is that it won't work," Einhorn told a conference organized by Moscow's PIR Center. "Russia is too committed to complete the Bushehr project and has a strong economic and political stake in carrying the project to fruition."

Einhorn also said the United States would be well served to improve intelligence-sharing with Russia and expand bilateral nuclear cooperation in such areas as advanced reactor types and spent nuclear storage.

Some 90 percent of the world's spent nuclear fuel is controlled by the United States, which provides it to other countries but retains the right to approve any transfer of such material. By exercising this right, Washington could significantly reduce the amount of fuel available for storage in Russia and, consequently, deliver a blow to Moscow's stated aim of earning billions of dollars through the storage project. Last year, the U.S. State Department explicitly linked U.S. approval to a written pledge by Moscow to terminate nuclear cooperation with "third parties;" presumably, these would include the "axis of evil" -- Iran, Iraq and North Korea.