Russia and Iran are conferring about the supply of new nuclear power plants at the Bushehr site on the Persian Gulf. Iran operates one Russian reactor there and building more could contribute to a comprehensive agreement between the six powers and Iran.

Let’s be clear that so far there’s no hard and fast deal for new Russian reactors in Iran, and also that there should be no concern about Russian sanctions-busting related to new reactor construction that is clearly linked to a comprehensive agreement between the powers and Iran. A news report that grabbed some attention on March 12, claiming that “Russia has agreed” to build two more reactors came from Iranian media–not Russian sources. More nuanced accounts said Iran and Russia were still discussing a “draft agreement.”

If we take for granted that this discussion is for real–since vendor Rosatom has confirmed that its deputy director was in Tehran this week to to hold talks about it–then the critical question for the future negotiation between Iran and the six powers is whether Russia will supply the low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel–for new reactors but also for the first Bushehr unit when Iran’s current 10-year fuel contract with Russia expires.

After Russia and Iran agreed in 1992 to complete the first Bushehr reactor, a contract was signed committing Russia to supply all the fuel for the initial ten years of operation, and committing Iran to returning the spent fuel to Russia. The reactor began operating in 2011. There’s no contract yet for Iran’s procurement after the first ten years.

Iran’s ‘practical needs’

What does this have to do with negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran?  Negotiators must arrive at what the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) calls “a mutually defined enrichment programme [for Iran] with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities, capacity, where it is carried out, and stocks of enriched uranium, for a period to be agreed upon.”

At the end of the day, the parties must decide how many of Iran’s 19,000 centrifuges Iran may operate for a specific period of time. Some observers speculate that the powers might agree to let Iran use between 3,000 and 5,000 centrifuges–with estimates trending in the upper part of the range should Iran agree to convert the IR-40 reactor from natural uranium to LEU fuel and then enrich the uranium for that and any other future research reactors under construction during the term of the agreement.

But the calculation of Iran’s “practical needs” for enrichment capacity would dramatically increase should it be agreed that Iran would make LEU fuel for power reactors. A Bushehr-type VVER reactor, with a nominal power rating of 910-megawatts and operating with a commercial capacity factor and duty cycle, would require about 100,000 separative-work units of enrichment capacity per year to meet the needs of refueling the reactor. Should Iran propose that it enrich the uranium for just a quarter of the fresh fuel that the reactor would require, it would need an enrichment capacity somewhat larger than Iran’s current population of  centrifuges. Should Iran aspire to make a lot more of this fuel, that could in its view justify development and deployment of more advanced centrifuges. These would include a model perhaps four times more powerful than its current IR-1 workhorse, and, as Iranian experts have suggested, a carbon-fiber machine maybe 15 times more powerful than IR-1 which apparently is still on the drawing board.

Because a primary objective of the JPOA is to lengthen Iran’s breakout timeline and, following from that, to strictly circumscribe its centrifuge enrichment capacity, the negotiation should preclude any understanding that a large centifuge population and an unbridled advanced centifuge R&D program in Iran would be justified by Iran’s vision for power reactor deployment.

Who will enrich Iran’s power reactor fuel?

Continued Russian supply of LEU fuel for reactors at Bushehr under commercial contracts would be the most straightforward solution from the point of spent fuel management, economics, safety, and successful negotiation of a comprehensive agreement with Iran. Were Iran to include substantial enrichment requirements for future power reactors in its assessment of its “practical needs” under the JPOA, the negotiation of a comprehensive agreement with Iran would overnight become imperiled.

For the foreseeable future Iran will not be able to make fuel assemblies for the VVER reactor design used at Bushehr. Last fall, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), asserted that a fabrication plant to make uranium dioxide fuel for power reactor fuel would soon be fully operational. But Iran has no agreement with Russia licensing the AEOI to make Bushehr fuel, giving Iran access to the intellectual property for the design of the reactor core internals, for the design of the fuel assemblies, and for the chemical and physical specifications of the fuel. Without that, Iran cannot make the Bushehr fuel.

Iran has no diagnostic quality assurance program for making power reactor fuel. Russia and Rosatom–with serious asperations in the global commercial nuclear power market at stake–would never permit Iran to load any domestically-produced fuel into the Bushehr reactor without acceptable safety assurances and legal liability coverage.

Russia has a strong commercial interest in making sure that there will be a Russian fuel supply component in any future reactor contract with Iran. Russia lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the first Bushehr project, and Rosatom sees fuel supply as an important route to recouping its losses.

The contract for Bushehr fuel delivery was signed for 10 years, but a 1992 bilateral government agreement to build the plant specifies that Russia will deliver the fuel during its whole life cycle, Anton Khlopkov pointed out. According to Article 5 of this agreement. “Russian organizations shall supply the Islamic Republic of Iran with nuclear fuel for the nuclear power plant being built there in accordance with the present Agreement for the entire lifespan of the nuclear power plant. The fuel shall be supplied in the form of finished sets of fuel assemblies and control rod assemblies.”

In negotiations over Iran’s “practical needs” for enrichment capacity, Iran may pull a joker out of the deck: aspirations to build an indigenous 300-MW power reactor at Darkovin. If Iran were to claim that it needs enrichment capacity to support this venture, the same dangers for the negotiation with the powers loom as in the case of any Iranian designs to enrich VVER fuel. Most caveats about Iran’s ability to make power reactor fuel for Bushehr would also apply–to say nothing about Iran’s doubtful capabilities to make critical pressure-boundary components and other safety-significant items for a wholly-indigenous power reactor project.

Iran Foreign Minister Javed Zarif and other Iranian officials have explained that, in the past, Iran kept secret its nuclear activities and sought fuel cycle autonomy because the regime was convinced that Western powers aimed to thwart Iran’s success. On the basis of the JPOA and flanking measures, were the powers to provide Iran access to the global nuclear market, Iran would not need a loss-making autarchic nuclear fuel cycle industry.

The geopolitics of uranium enrichment are at a crossroads and how Iran and the powers resolve this issue will have signal global imporance. For reasons which to some extent resonate with Iran’s national narrative, Brazil has embarked on an indigenous centrifuge enrichment program to serve a future line of power reactors. After several decades of development Brazil’s centrifuges are meeting about 5% of the country’s demand for enrichment services. On the other side of the ledger, South Korea, whose industry has recently favored plans to set up a domestic enrichment plant to supply fuel to about two dozen operating power reactors, may instead become a shareholder in an existing uranium enrichment plant located elsewhere.