Although Bushehr is the most important project of Russian-Iranian economic cooperation, it is not the only one. In 2010, trade between the two countries exceeded $3.6 billion, out of which Russian exports accounted for $3.3 billion. Iran is Russia’s major trade partner in the Middle East.
Connection of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant to the power grid is a momentous event for both Iran and Russia. It is a unique project that is over 40 years old. The power plant’s construction was begun in 1974 by Germany’s Kraftwerk Union AG, a joint venture of Siemens and another engineering giant, AEG. The contract envisaged the launch of two PWR units with a capacity of 1.2 GW each by 1981. In 1980, after international sanctions against Iran were introduced, Germany withdrew from the project, even though work on the first unit was 85% complete. During the war between Iran and Iraq, the plant was bombed several times, resulting in significant damage to its facilities, including the vessel of the reactor.
It took Iran a long time to try to reach an agreement on the completion of the plant. Talks with Siemens produced no result. It was only in 1995 that Iran and Russia agreed that Russian companies would complete the first unit and install a VVER-1000 reactor there. Real work, however, began only in the late 1990s and took over ten years. The agreement envisaged that the Russian reactor was to be integrated in the existing facilities, which required serious alterations to the existing buildings. This is what makes the project technologically unique.
The German design of the plant took into consideration its location in a seismically active zone. Russian experts also bore this factor in mind when building the plant’s safety mechanisms. It should be noted that there are many nuclear power plants that are located in seismically active zones around the world, including in the United States. This in itself is not a reason for concern. The Russian reactor is a third generation reactor that ensures a higher level of safety than virtually any nuclear power plant that was put into operation before 1990. So the fears about Bushehr’s safety because of its location in an area prone to earthquakes seem groundless.
The construction of the Bushehr plant is often seen as the realization of Iran’s ambition to obtain nuclear weapons, even though it has been repeatedly emphasized that it is impossible to produce nuclear weapons using a nuclear power plant of this type. It is true that Iran wants nuclear weapons, but its efforts in this area have nothing to do with Bushehr. To get access to irradiated nuclear fuel from a light-water reactor like VVER, it is necessary to shut down the plant and open up the vessel of the reactor. Therefore, these reactors are not suitable for obtaining weapon-grade plutonium, unlike outdated gas-cooled reactors like Magnox, for example. Moreover, the contract with Iran envisages that Russia will supply fuel to the plant and take away nuclear waste. Iran’s ambition to obtain nuclear weapons and its wish to have its own nuclear power plant are two completely unrelated things that should be kept separate.
On the other hand, the importance of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant for Iran’s energy generation is often underestimated. The country is witnessing a surge in electricity consumption: in the last ten years alone, its energy demand soared by 90%, reaching almost 225 billion kWh in 2010. Bushehr 1 will generate 7 billion kWh annually and will significantly improve the stability of the power generating system in the southwest area of the country. It is absolutely logical for Iran to develop nuclear power generation in such circumstances, especially given the infrastructure that was created back in the 1970s and the difficulties with the construction of thermal power plants in Iran, including those built by Russian companies.
Although Bushehr is the most important project of Russian-Iranian economic cooperation, it is not the only one. In 2010, trade between the two countries exceeded $3.6 billion, out of which Russian exports accounted for $3.3 billion. Iran is Russia’s major trade partner in the Middle East. It is an important market for Russian machines, equipment, vehicles, metal products and sawn timber. Given the evolving international situation around Iran, Russia has good prospects for developing bilateral economic ties at a quicker pace.
In the sphere of nuclear power generation, it could mean the construction of a second unit at Bushehr, although at present there are no agreements on the subject. Judging by the time it took, the construction of Bushehr 1 was a complicated project that was a serious headache for both Russia and Iran. There were numerous technical problems; issues of financing and payment arouse repeatedly, and there was also pressure from other countries. Nevertheless, the implementation of the Bushehr 2 project is realistic, given its importance for Iran’s power generation and economic rationale, but it will require long talks to satisfy both parties’ interests.