BNPP Threat Level Assessment and Options
By: Caitlin Stock
The Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) was Iran’s first commercial nuclear reactor that was first constructed in 1994. The BNPP lies 12 kilometers outside the small fishing village Bushehr on the southern Gulf coast of Iran. After the plant’s completion in 2012, the 1000-megawatt plant was added to the Iranian national power grid and was inspected by the IAEA for compliance in 2013. The power plant was originally contracted by the German company Siemens, but construction was halted during the Iranian revolution and the plant was damaged in an air raid. After the revolution and the subsequent changes in national leadership, Siemens faced diplomatic discouragement from continuing the partnership with Iran. Soon after their discontinuation, the Russian company Atomstroyexport partnered with Iran to finish the powerplant. The reconstruction and subsequent completion of BNPP was the result of an agreement between Tehran and Moscow in 1994.
Moscow incorporated its VVER reactor technology to provide peaceful energy means. The VVER Reactor (Water-Water Energetic Reactor, Russian transliteration) was developed in the Soviet Union as cooling system for nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactor containers are submerged in pools of cool water (“light-water”) to moderate temperature and keep the reactors operating at an optimal temperatureVVER technology and light-water moderation is regarded as a low proliferation risk. Russia continues to provide Iran with fresh fuel means to operate the facility, namely, enriched uranium-hexafluoride. Under IAEA restrictions, Iran returns spent fuel (plutonium) to Russia for disposal. Since November 2013, the E3 talks in Geneva granted the IAEA 24-hour access to the BNPP for inspections.
Current Threat Level
The Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) in Bushehr, Iran exhibited signs of increased uranium enrichment that may be a possible threat to United States security and to the safety of the region. The BNPP is currently undergoing joint construction efforts from Tehran and Moscow as the groundwork is being laid for a second reactor. The Plant’s compound is being expanded as the initial framework for the second reactor is being placed. Moscow is continuing to provide Tehran with the needed fuel for its current reactors throughout the country. The unit is expected to be completed in 2024.
Thus far, the Bushehr plant has exceeded the terms of the Iranian Nuclear Deal by enriching isotope Uranium-235 to 4.26%. The original terms of the agreement allowed Iranian nuclear officials to enrich Uranium-238 up to 3.67% for power and research purposes. Despite the initial limit, officials from the Ministry of Energy stated that they hope to increase enrichment levels to 5%, which is the “maximum level of enrichment for fuel used in normal power reactors”.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, Iranian spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, warned the United States in a statement that Iran is prepared to enrich up to 20%, although that level is “not needed now”. This level of enrichment is not present at the BNPP yet. Enrichment levels for weapons-grade Uranium-235 is 90%. Officials from the Ministry of Energy have expressed their desire to enrich Uranium to these levels to make Iran less dependent on fossil fuels by shifting towards nuclear power.
Currently, the BNPP itself could become a cause for concern to the US. The threat level is likely to rise as Iran seeks to enrich Uranium-235 further, and because the construction plans for the BNPP include its expansion to a second reactor at the 4.26% enrichment level. The BNPP is continuing to provide the surrounding region with nuclear power at these levels, although it is likely to become a higher-enrichment reactor in the next few years.
Possible Future Actions
As Iran seeks to increase its nuclear abilities through uranium enrichment, the top priority of the next steps in US policy is to ensure safety in the region. One option for policymakers to consider is to continue monitoring the plant and take no other action. Monitoring the site for rapid increases in uranium enrichment and unusual activity is the current trajectory of US Intelligence Forces. Considering the BNPP’s day-to-day operations and daily activity level, the plant’s threat level remains somewhat lower than other nuclear power plants in the region. Despite Iran’s talk of enriching uranium to 20%, this advancement may not occur at the BNPP; rather, it is more likely to occur at the Tehran Research Reactor. Continuing research and monitoring would ensure that Iran is compliant in its nuclear energy usage and ensure that the BNPP is not contributing or harming other actors in the region.
Another option for consideration is lifting sanctions in exchange for halted enrichment. As Iran shifted its focus to enriching Uranium, President Trump increased the amount of sanctions on various industries in the country. As a result, the Iranian GDP dipped 9% in 2019 alone. Conversely, in years where sanctions were lifted (2016-2017), Iran saw a 12% increase in GDP. The US can leverage its sanctions in exchange for slowed or halted uranium enrichment. The enrichment processes occurring at the BNPP could slow down and Iran’s focus could shift into sustainable growth within international guidelines. In considering the options available, the two listed seem the most plausible and the most effective in slowing uranium enrichment processes in Iran and ensuring that clean, renewable energy is prioritized over weapons creation.