Iran Nuclear News U.S.-backed Russian institutes help Iran build reactor

U.S.-backed Russian institutes help Iran build reactor

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New York Times: The Energy Department is subsidizing two Russian nuclear institutes that are building important parts of a reactor in Iran whose construction the United States spent years trying to stop, according to a House committee. The New York Times

By MATTHEW L. WALD
Published: February 7, 2008

WASHINGTON — The Energy Department is subsidizing two Russian nuclear institutes that are building important parts of a reactor in Iran whose construction the United States spent years trying to stop, according to a House committee.

The institutes, both in Nizhny Novgorod, gave American officials copies of sales presentations that listed the Bushehr reactor, which Russia has agreed to fuel, as one of their projects. One institute is providing control systems, including control room equipment, and the other, hundreds of pumps and ventilation fans.

The Energy Department is subsidizing the institutes under the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention, a program set up in 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The program was intended to prevent newly impoverished scientists and their institutions from selling expertise to states or terrorist groups that want nuclear weapons.

The United States supplements the salaries of scientists and pays overhead at those institutes, according to the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee.

It was not immediately clear whether the Energy Department was contributing to the salaries of the very scientists involved in the Bushehr reactor project. Two Michigan Democrats — Representatives John D. Dingell, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupak, chairman of that committee’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee — asked that question in a letter sent on Wednesday to Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman.

“What policy logic justifies D.O.E. funding Russian institutes which are providing nuclear technology to Iran?” the letter asked. “How does this advance our non-proliferation goals?”

Mr. Bodman is supposed to testify on Thursday before the Energy and Commerce Committee in a hastily scheduled hearing to explore the issue.

Mr. Dingell, in a telephone interview, pointed out that the State Department has accused Iran of using the Bushehr reactor as a cover for obtaining nuclear technology useful in a weapons program. And, he said, “We’ve got a bunch of federal laws that impose sanctions on U.S. companies that develop Iran’s oil.”

But under the nonproliferation program, he said, “We’ve got U.S. money providing assistance to help develop a reactor that we’re busy denouncing.”

Mr. Dingell said the committee would also pursue whether the Energy Department was subsidizing any institutes that worked with North Korea, Syria or other countries that are developing nuclear weapons or may be seeking to do so.

But the Energy Department said in a statement Wednesday evening, “We are confident that none of the projects cited by the House committee, or any of the department’s scientist engagement projects with Russia, support nuclear work in Iran.”

The statement added, “We take all measures necessary to ensure that neither money nor technology falls into the hands of countries of concern.”

Individual projects are cleared by the Defense Department, the State Department and intelligence agencies, according to the Energy Department.

An Energy Department official said, “What we’re doing is very important to engage these scientists as part of a nonproliferation goal.” The official requested anonymity because his response had not gone through official channels.

The Energy Department has approved projects with the two institutes worth $4 million, according to the letter sent by the committee chairmen to Mr. Bodman on Wednesday, but the Energy Department official said that sum included a $1 million project that might have been canceled.

Because of the design of Bushehr, a civilian electric power plant, it would be cumbersome to recover the plutonium that is the byproduct of its operations. In addition, Russia has announced that it will take back the spent fuel from the plant, thus making the plutonium unavailable to Iran.

But the United States has looked with some alarm at Iran acquiring nuclear expertise. Iran wants to build a plant to enrich uranium and make its own reactor fuel, saying it wants to do so for civilian purposes. American officials complain that the enrichment technology could also be used to make warheads.

Mr. Dingell said, “Only this administration would complain about proliferation in Iran, as part of President Bush’s axis of evil, and then finance it with American taxpayer dollars.”

Mr. Stupak called it “schizophrenic foreign policy.”

“We should not be doing business with institutes that help promote Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” he said.

The United States pays for a variety of projects at numerous “institutes” in Russia and other former Soviet countries. For example, at the Scientific Research Institute of Measuring Systems in Nizhny Novgorod, which is making control room equipment for Bushehr, the United States is paying $1.15 million for a project for radar mapping of geological structures, which could be used to locate underground mineral deposits.

A study of the American program by the Government Accountability Office released last month found that while the program was intended to provide support for former Soviet weapons scientists, many of those receiving benefits had done no weapons work, and some were not old enough to have worked as scientists during Soviet times.

An Energy Department official testifying before Mr. Stupak acknowledged at a hearing on Jan. 23 that parts of the program may have outlived the original intent.

The Bushehr reactor has had a long, involved history. In 1975 the shah of Iran ordered twin reactors from a German firm, Kraftwerke-Union, but work stopped after he was overthrown in 1979. The two units were bombed by the Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq war that began in 1980.

In 1995, the Iranian government contracted with Russia to finish the first unit, a major challenge because the standard Russian design was substantially different from the German design.

The reactor is supposed to begin producing power this year, Iranian officials said.

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