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Cool it
A case for Iran's nuclear energy program

July 8, 2004

One of the truly unfortunate things about peaceful civilian nuclear power is the alleged association with nuclear wepaons. While there are places in the fuel cycle of a civilian power program and a nuclear weapons program where there will be similarities, there is no essential connection. That is, you can have a civilian nuclear power program without any nuclear weapons (such as Canada), and you can have nuclear weapons completely without civilian nuclear power (such as Israel). One does not require, lead to, or even imply the other.

To make nuclear weapons, one needs either U-235 or Pu-239. U-235 is found in natural Uranium in the ground, but only as a small isotopic fraction of 0.7% (the rest being U-238). With this concentration, it is impossible to make any practical weapon. To make a Uranium bomb, one needs near 100% purities. To get that, one needs to somehow enrich the Uranium.

However, in order to operate a civilian nuclear power plant, one also needs enriched Uranium. Light Water Reactors such as the one in Bushehr typiclly require an enrichment level of 3-5% U-235 for their fuel. So Iran needs to enrich Uranium anyway. Therefore the media's claim (CNN, June 12, 2004) that "Enriched uranium is a key component in making a nuclear bomb" is highly misleading.

Enriching Uranium to weapons grade purities is an extremely difficult task. One needs massive facilities to do this. The US government points to the commercial centrifuge plant under construction in Natanz as an indication of Iran's WMD intentions. However, it is very easy for IAEA inspectors to detect weapons grade enrichment, and Iran will have an impossibly hard time concealing such levels of enrichment. So hard in fact, that Iran would be better off buying it than trying to make it while hiding from IAEA scrunity.

Neither is the IAEA's demand that Iran cease enrichment altogether logical. Why import nuclear fuel from Russia under their conditions? Especially when Iran has the mining and extraction capabilities? And especially when the UN has the technical ability to monitor Iran for weapons grade enrichment.

That leaves us with Pu-239. How do you make that? By building a dedicated nuclear plant that can convert Uranium to Pu-239. In other words, this reactor cannot be used for power generation. It has a different fuel cycle, does not operate at high temperatures, and needs to be shut down every few weeks for fuel removal. Well, spotting a facility like that would also be a pretty easy thing for IAEA scientist inspectors.

Now normal Light Water Reactors also contain Pu-239 in their "spent fuel" (i.e. burnt fuel) . But trying to extract, seperate, and purify weapons quality Pu-239 from the spent fuel is an incredibly laborious and difficult process that is impossible to carry out clandestinely. One simply can't hide things like that. It's like trying to test a jet engine in your garage without waking up the neighbors. And besides, the spent fuel is supposedly to be turned over to the Russians. No need to worry about its disposal or reprocessing either.

And after going through agonizing pain to secretly obtain the necessary Pu-239, then comes the really difficult task of building the bomb itself, which is made much more difficult by the high (impurity) Pu-240 fraction in LWR spent fuel.

Therefore the IAEA simply need be looking for cases in which synergies in civilian programs are used to support military nuclear programs. Is Iran's civilian program a front for a military program? If it is, as I have pointed out, it will be very easy to tell the difference once they get going down the military path.

If importing (instead of home growing) the technology was truly an option, Canada would not ban its sale of CANDU reactors to Iran. CANDU reactors are the only reactors capable of running without the need for enriched Uranium. They use heavy water to cool the fuel. Unfortunately, these reactors are also good for making weapons grade plutonium. But then, Iran isn't planing to keep the spent fuel anyway. And besides, Iran is already under sanctions for importing normal technology such as computers and even IEEE memberships under various guises.

The whole fuss on Uranium enrichment has prompted Iran to pursue its own Heavy Water reactor. The United States government proclaims that "heavy-water reactors provide the best means of producing plutonium for use in nuclear weapons." Why don't we then see any weapons in Canada?

Now this is not to say that the world community need not work very hard to control the spread of nuclear weapons. But the point is that purely civilian nuclear power is not a path to nuclear weapons. For the case of Iran, it would be just too obvious if they did otherwise.

The argument that Iran needs no nuclear energy due to its vast fossil reserves does not hold either. Especially for a country that has to import its own fossil fuel, and which began construction of the Bushehr power plant only after recommendations from the United States to do so, before the revolution.

I feel it would be a mistake to unduly penalize civilian nuclear energy because of the possible potential for malefactors to misuse its fruits. It is vital that we let nuclear power do what it is capable of in providing environmentally responsible energy that can improve and sustain the quality of life for future generations of Iranians.

And what are we Americans to do with the threat of terrorism then, I am always asked. Perhaps, I say, the most effective weapon we can have against terrorism is to reduce poverty and improve the quality of life worldwide. One has to suspect that such poverty and its frustrated desperation can indeed be breeding grounds for international terrorism. Nuclear energy can help mitigate these deplorable conditions. Certainly we must do it with care and provide every barrier to misuse we can effectively employ, but the greater good is achieved if we use nuclear energy to close the gap between the haves and have-nots.

All this being said, if the US is intent on nonproliferation of WMDs, it must be fair and bring everyone under the spotlight, including Israel. Iran afterall, sustained thousands of casualties from chemical weapons during the war with Iraq.

As for Iran, in my opinion, it must realize that it is within her best interests to pull its nose out of the Israeli-Palestinain conflict and establish relations with the state of Israel. Iran afterall is the land of Cyrus The Great, Queen Esther, and Daniel the Prophet.

My wish personally is to one day see a socially pluralist and secularist Iran in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims, live side by side striving for a better Iran, similar to the days of Moorish Spain. Then I wouldn't have to go to such lengths to make a case for something as beneficial as nuclear energy. How unfortunate for us all.

.................... Spam?! Khalaas!

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By Nima Kasraie


Books of the day

Iran in Crisis
Nuclear Ambitions and the American Response
By Roger Howard

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