The commencement of operations at Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor this weekend marks a culmination of the country's long saga to acquire atomic energy. The 1,000 Mwe plant will be the sole nuclear power station in the Middle East. On its face the installation does not pose proliferation risks. It is a light water reactor fueled with low enriched uranium. Typically, countries do not use such plants to produce weapons usable plutonium But closer examination reveals a facility that could present such a risk as well as a radiological hostage to neighbors concerned about Iran's nuclear weapons program. These facts only serve to complicate the region's already complex nuclear situation.
Situated along the Persian Gulf Bushehr marks the culmination of Iran's 30 year effort to generate atomic power. In 1979 the Shah's vision of nearly two dozen reactors ended with his overthrow along with his plans to conceal a parallel nuclear weapons program. In 1995 the revolutionary regime contracted Russia to complete one of two reactors the Shah started at Bushehr. Washington saw the effort as a potential guise for a nuclear weapons program and attempted to halt construction diplomatically. It failed.
Due to the isotopic composition, weapons designers do not consider plutonium bred in the spent fuel of nuclear power plants that recharge on average every eighteen months the best material for weapons. However, were fuel unloaded eight months or so into its cycle, the plutonium would be weapons grade. Presumably, IAEA safeguards would detect such an Iranian effort. Russia has demanded additional guarantees requiring spent fuel repatriation as a quid pro quo for new fuel elements. Were the Mullahs to balk they could bank on fuel supplies from their own enrichment and fuel assembly facilities to keep Bushehr in operation while extracting the plutonium for weapons from the spent fuel.
Still preserving its lifeline to the international commercial reactor market may be one reason Iran would exclude this path. Besides, Tehran already has one potential weapons stream through its enrichment program and another pending, the heavy water Arak reactor that is ideal for weapons plutonium production.
However, Bushehr poses another risk. Once the plant commences full operations in months to come, it will accumulate large inventories of highly radioactive waste as the fuel rods expend their energy. Although a different design, Chernobyl demonstrated what would happen were a large reactor to release its contents. A successful military strike or terrorist attack on Bushehr could replicate the disastrous Ukraine accident.
For Persian Gulf neighbors Bushehr's military vulnerability poses a two edged sword. For those states fearful that a nuclear armed Iran will attempt to push its weight around, Bushehr offers a radiological hostage to push back. South Asia demonstrated the fear attacks could generate. India, bent on stopping Pakistan's nuclear weapons advances, recoiled from applying an Israeli-like strike in the 1980s concerned that Islamabad could revenge itself by hitting Indian nuclear power plants resulting in the contamination of vast areas. As long as Iran's neighbors do not possess similar facilities Iran would remain uniquely vulnerable. Were that to change, implementation of tit for tat could transform the region into a radiological wasteland placing at risk the world's vital oil resources.
Like the Gulf states, Bushehr offers Israel a radiological hostage. But unlike the others for the moment, it already operates a reactor, the Dimona weapons plant. Although magnitudes smaller than Bushehr, destruction, which Iran has threatened, could lightly contaminate populated regions depending upon seasonable winds.
This speculation comes with an historical backdrop. The Middle East turns out to be the only region since World War II where strikes against nuclear plants or related installations have taken place. Ironically, Iran initiated the pattern when it attacked Iraq's Osirak reactor in September 1980. Israel followed destroying the plant in June 1981 followed in turn by Iraqi attacks on Bushehr. The United States contributed when it bombed an Iraqi research reactor at the outset of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. And in 2007 Israel destroyed a secret Syrian reactor. In each case, strikes targeted facilities under construction--and without any significant radioactive elements on site--or, in the 1991 attack, a small plant from which radioactive elements had been removed. Iran's new power reactor changes the game.
The portent of Bushehr's start up for Middle East as a generator of nuclear weapons material appears unlikely. But as a nuclear hostage in this volatile region, Iran will confront a risk it cannot avoid that could help neutralize a nuclear arsenal were it to break out. But in the future, Iran may not be alone. Nations across the area -- the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Israel all plan or show interest in atomic power -- will become nuclear hostages too. Whether this brings sobriety to this conflicted part of the world remains to be seen. Bushehr could be the test.