The Bulletin Online

By Pavel Podvig | 20 December 2007

It's possible that by delivering the first 180 fuel assemblies to the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran on December 16, Russia scored a critical victory for the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Early acknowledgement of the event's importance came from an unlikely source--President George W. Bush. Commenting on the Russian shipment, he publicly urged Iran to now suspend its controversial enrichment program, arguing that with Russian fuel, Iran no longer needed to enrich uranium on its own. Of course, it's unlikely that Iran will stop its centrifuges--at least not any time soon. But if Washington accepts the shipment of rector fuel to Bushehr as legitimate--despite the continuing controversy surrounding the Iranian nuclear program--it will set an important precedent that should help build a workable system of fuel supply guarantees.

The argument that access to a reliable fuel supply for nuclear power reactors will make it difficult for states to justify enriching uranium indigenously is not new. No serious conversation about strengthening the nonproliferation regime is possible without a discussion of the measures needed to ensure that countries with an interest in nuclear power will have access to a reliable, uninterrupted fuel supply. Many current proposals attempt to address the issue--from the U.S.-sponsored Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which would supply fuel services to those states that forgo their own enrichment programs, to an arrangement where the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would manage banks of enriched uranium, which it would supply in critical situations.

So far, the problem with all the proposals is that it's unclear whether consumer countries will find the guarantees sufficient and whether the proposed arrangements could be insulated from outside political pressure. All the proposed scenarios include a seemingly reasonable condition: A country would be eligible to receive fuel from a supplier or a fuel bank as long as it is in good standing regarding its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations. The problem is that a country in good standing would hardly need a guarantee; it could acquire all the necessary services on the open market. To really work, the guarantee must be strong enough that fuel delivery continues even when a country's NPT compliance is in dispute.

Iran is a telling example. Until recently, it hadn't technically violated its NPT obligations. But this didn't prevent Washington from applying substantial pressure on Russia and other countries in hopes of curtailing work at Bushehr. In fact, in the 1990s, the United States successfully stopped China's nuclear cooperation with Iran and forced Ukraine to pull out of the Bushehr project. If Washington failed to force Russia to stop construction at Bushehr, it wasn't from a lack of trying.

Although the U.S. effort to stop the Bushehr project was hardly the reason why Iran pursued a uranium enrichment program of its own, it's easy to see how U.S. pressure gave a strong argument to those in Iran who believed that Tehran couldn't fully rely on Russia's promises to finish construction at Bushehr and supply fuel for the reactor. (Anyone who observed how the situation played out would be rightly skeptical about guaranteed fuel supply proposals.) Moreover, U.S. policy regarding Bushehr demonstrated that when involving matters Washington considers important, the United States is willing to set aside whatever "good standing" ruling the IAEA may have made and use all formal and informal means to stop the activity it doesn't like.

The shipment of Russian fuel to Bushehr hasn't changed the situation irreversibly. But it did indicate that fuel supply guarantees may work in difficult situations--exactly when they're needed.