Opposition to Bushehr
On 23 February 1998, the US State Department reaffirmed US opposition to Iran's nuclear program. The United States argued that Iran had sufficient oil and gas reserves for power generation, and that nuclear reactors were expensive, unnecessary, and could be used for military purposes. The United States strongly opposed the project, which was permitted under the NPT, and had in the past provided Russia with intelligence information pointing to the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Despite this, the Russians proceeded with work on Bushehr.
US opposition to Russian construction of Bushehr rested on three main issues. First was that weapons grade plutonium could be extracted from the reactor allowing the Iranians to construct nuclear weapons. Secondly, the US feared that the Russians and the Iranians were using Bushehr as a cover for the transfer of other sensitive technology that would normally be prohibited. Finally, the US was concerned that the knowledge gained by Iranian scientists working at Bushehr could further Irans nuclear weapons program.
US pressure to prevent the construction of Brushehr had not been limited to Russia. On 6 March 1998, during a visit by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Ukraine announced that it would not sell turbines for use with reactors at Bushehr. The contract had been worth $45 million. Five days later, Vice President Gore met with Russian Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and discussed, among other things, US concerns over Russian exports of nuclear and missile technology to Iran.
Iran claimed that its nuclear program was for peaceful power-generation purposes and that it would help free up oil and gas resources for export, thus generating additional hard-currency revenues. The US had countered that Iran did not possess sufficient natural reserves of nuclear fuel, meaning that it would be dependant on costly imports to sustain a nuclear power program.
Using their own imagery satellites, the Israeli military was undoutedly also monitoring the progress towards completion of the first Bushehr reactor. Although the reactor was not designed to produce material for nuclear weapons, the spent fuel from the reactor could be reprocessed to yield plutonium, which was why the reactor was under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. As with the Iraqi Osiraq reactor two decades ago, Israel was thought to face a choice as to whether to attack the Bushehr reactor before it becomes operational. Between 2002 and June 2008 Israel, as well as the United States refused to take the possibility of a preemptive strike out of the equation. Israel even staged a military exercise in March 2008 seen as specifically geared toward preparing for such an attack.
The United States had consistantly resisted negotiating with Iranian authorities, and had stipulated a desire that they suspend enrichment activities as a prequisite. With UN Security Council Resolutions calling for this suspension passed in 2006, the United States continued to hold to this requirement for negotiations, and refused to remove the possibility of a preemptive military strike to halt such activities. By the end of July 2008, however, the United States had suggested its desire to return to a diplomatic forum to resolve the dispute. It had offered to send the Under Secretary of Defense to the next round of negotiations with Iranian authorities, which it had previously resisted.
Nuclear Weapons Potential
President Mohammad Khatami said on 23 December 2002 that Iran was committed to its obligations and had no intention to develop nuclear weapons. He said that Iran's willingness to send spent fuel back to Russia showed that it did not want to use it for weapons, since the nuclear waste from Bushire plant would be taken to Russia for safekeeping.
According to Paul Leventhal of the Nuclear Control Institute, if Iran were to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and renounce the agreement with Russia, the Bushehr reactor could produce a quarter ton of plutonium per year, which Leventhal said was enough for at least 30 atomic bombs. Harmon W. Hubbard raised similar concerns in an April 2003 article titled "Plutonium from Light Water Reactors as Nuclear Weapon Material" published by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC). Another report published by the NPEC in 2004 reiterated the concerns about light water reactors and plutonium production.
Normally for electrical power production the uranium fuel remains in the reactor for three to four years, which produces a plutonium of 60 percent or less Pu-239, 25 percent or more Pu-240, 10 percent or more Pu-241, and a few percent Pu-242. The Pu-240 has a high spontaneous rate of fission, and the amount of Pu-240 in weapons-grade plutonium generally does not exceed 6 percent, with the remaining 93 percent Pu-239. Higher concentrations of Pu-240 can result in pre-detonation of the weapon, significantly reducing yield and reliability. For the production of weapons-grade plutonium with lower Pu-240 concentrations, the fuel rods in a reactor would have to be changed frequently, about every four months or less.
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