Prospects for New Nuclear Power Plants in Iran: What Russia's Interests Are?

Iran continues to send signals of its willingness to pursue further cooperation with Russia at the Bushehr NPP site. The construction of two new energy reactors might soon commence on the Persian Gulf coast. Russia has its own reasons to pursue such cooperation. Moscow needs an infrastructure project that would serve as an anchor in Russian-Iranian relations.

In recent weeks Iran has been waging a massive campaign in an effort to convey to the international community and to its own public the grand scale of its nuclear power plans. In February 2013 the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced that 16 new sites had been selected for the construction of nuclear power plants. It named sites in coastal areas of the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman; in Khuzestan Province; and in the northwest of the country. In April AEOI head Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani spoke about imminent plans to start building two new reactors at the Bushehr NPP site. Unnamed AEOI representatives also told the media that Iran was working on an indigenous NPP design for a new plant to be built near the town of Darkhovin, Khuzestan Province. 

How realistic are Iran plans and projects?

Without questioning Iran’s right to develop peaceful nuclear energy under IAEA controls, let us look at the facts. The first time Iran began a large program to select sites for future NPPs was in the mid-1970s. That program involved some of the leading Western companies. But having spent a lot of time and money by the time the Islamic Revolution broke out in 1979, the government had identified only two suitable sites: near the town of Bushehr on the coast of the Persian Gulf (Bushehr Province), and near Darkhovin on the Karun River (Khuzestan Province). German specialists were invited to commence work at the first site, and French at the second. There was also a site near Isfahan, where the government wanted to pursue an ambitious project involving two German reactors of innovative design. The site lacked the necessary body of water, so the design relied on air-cooling technology. Owing to a number of technical challenges, that technology has yet to be implemented anywhere in the world, and the whole concept is likely forever to remain on paper.

Other sites considered for future NPPs were near Urmia (Western Azerbaijan Province), and Saveh (Markazi Province). The government’s plan was that if the Germans were successful in implementation of the air-cooled reactor project in Isfahan, they would be invited to build another such plant in Saveh, which also lacked a suitable body of water. But no final decisions had been made on the two sites by the time of the Islamic Revolution.

In fact, in the late 1970s the leadership of the Iranian nuclear industry concluded that the initial plans of building NPPs in the country (20 energy reactors with a total output of 23 GW) were overly ambitious, and that Iran had enough of the suitable sites for up to 12 GW of nuclear power capacity. We believe that even 12 GW would be very difficult to achieve.

What are the bottlenecks for the development of the nuclear power in Iran?

, the country’s territory has active geological areas and difficult terrain; much of it is prone to earthquakes. That, for example, makes it next to impossible to build NPPs on the Caspian coast. Citing high seismic activity, in the 1980s Soviet specialists after geological survey turned down an Iranian proposal to build a nuclear power plant near the town of Gorgan, close to the Caspian coastline.

Second , there is a scarcity of the water resources necessary for cooling nuclear power reactors. The sufficient sources of water that could potentially be used for such purposes include the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea, and the Karun River.

Third , Iran has a poor transport infrastructure, which makes it difficult to bring large parts and components to NPP sites. For example, the reactor vessel weighs 300 tonnes. Suitable vehicles can be found to carry such cargo, but not every road bridge or tunnel can accommodate the weight and size. That is one of the reasons why Bushehr site, which lies on the Persian Gulf coast, was chosen to build Iran’s first nuclear power plant.

Based on these considerations alone (and putting aside for the moment any political or financial hurdles) it is fair to say that Iran faces obvious natural limitations which can stymie its plans of building dozens of new reactors.

How many NPPs can Iran build?

, we believe that at this moment Iran does not have the capacity to build nuclear power reactors on its own. Without serious international cooperation it is unlikely that the country will manage to build an NPP in Darkhovin in the coming 15 to 20 years. The greatest challenge is to manufacture large reactor components (like reactor vessel), which require a formidable industrial capability and expertise. Another weak link is the manufacture of nuclear fuel, which must pass the necessary certification process. Iran has made obvious progress in nuclear technologies over the past decades. Nevertheless, and despite the government’s recent pronouncements, the Iranian nuclear industry is nowhere near self-sufficiency in making fuel for large power reactors such as the Bushehr NPP. This is a very complex technological challenge which involves advanced know-how in several areas. To illustrate, one of the world’s nuclear power pioneers, America’s Westinghouse, has undertaken four separate attempts to break into the market for nuclear fuel suitable for Russian/Soviet VVER-type reactors in the Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia, and Ukraine. None of these attempts have been very successful.

, even if Iran manages to secure the cooperation of the leading global players (i.e. if the Iranian nuclear crisis is promptly resolved, and the global nuclear suppliers show commercial interest in Iranian projects) over the next 15-20 years the Iranian nuclear energy program is unlikely to venture beyond the Bushehr and Darkhovin sites. The most realistic scenario is that the country may be able to build another three or five reactors by 2025-2030, in addition to the already existing reactor in Bushehr. We also believe that if those plans go ahead, Iran will be interested in diversifying suppliers of reactor technology.

Russia’s interests

What are the implications of these conclusions for Russia? Despite its natural interest in diversifying the sources of nuclear technology, Iran continues to send signals of its willingness to pursue further cooperation with Russia at the Bushehr NPP site. That was probably what Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani meant when he said that the construction of two new energy reactors might soon commence on the Persian Gulf coast. Obviously, Russia has its own reasons to pursue such cooperation. Moscow needs an infrastructure project that would serve as an anchor in Russian-Iranian relations, and which would enable it to maintain constructive technical and economic cooperation with Iran. That cooperation seemed to go well in the 1990s and 2000s, but has been on the wane over the past few years. What, then, are the conditions required for Russian-Iranian cooperation in building new nuclear power reactors?

all the remaining work related to safe and reliable operation of the first reactor of the Bushehr NPP must be completed. The project is very complex because it involves integration of German technology and hardware into a Russian-designed nuclear power plant; nevertheless, the commissioning and start-up phase at Bushehr is obviously taking much longer than it should. It order to avoid further reputational losses for the Russian nuclear energy industry in Iran and the Middle East as a whole, additional efforts must be taken to complete that phase as soon as possible.

Second, there is a need for a new and up-to-date legal framework for the two countries’ cooperation in peaceful use of nuclear energy. The existing framework was put in place mainly in 1992; it consists of the Russian-Iranian intergovernmental agreement on peaceful nuclear energy cooperation of August 24, 1992, and the intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in building a nuclear power plant on Iranian territory of August 25, 1992. The existing body of agreements must be adapted to reflect today’s realities.

preparations for new NPP projects must involve a careful study of all the financial, political and other risks of building nuclear power plants in Iran. Particular attention must be paid to the experience accumulated during the construction of the first reactor in Bushehr.

cooperation in building new nuclear power facilities in Iran must be harmonized with numerous documents adopted as part of the efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis, including UN Security Council resolutions and joint proposals by the group of mediators at the P5+1 talks, of which Russia is a member.

cooperation in building new nuclear power reactors in Iran must be based solely on Russian technology; it must not involve the use of any hardware or structures built by German contractors at the Bushehr site back in the 1970s. The site currently hosts a damaged containment building of the second reactor erected by Siemens in the 1970s and damaged during the Iran-Iraq war. The construction of the first reactor in Bushehr has demonstrated that an ‘integrated project’ makes the whole venture far more expensive and time-consuming. It appears that Moscow and Tehran have already reached a mutual understanding on this particular matter.

This article was drafted as part of the study ‘Prospects for Nuclear Power in the Middle East after Fukushima and the Arab Spring. Challenges and Opportunities for Russia’, which is being conducted with the support of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club . 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.