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.
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
And after going through agonizing pain to secretly obtain
the necessary Pu-239, then comes the really difficult task of building
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
The whole fuss on Uranium enrichment has prompted
Iran to pursue its own Heavy Water reactor. The United States government
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
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
can improve and sustain the quality of life for future generations
And what are we Americans to do with the threat
of terrorism then, I am always asked. Perhaps, I say, the most
can have against terrorism is to reduce poverty and improve
the quality of life worldwide. One has to suspect that
and its frustrated desperation can indeed be breeding grounds
for international terrorism. Nuclear energy can help mitigate
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,
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
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
make a case for
something as beneficial as nuclear energy. How unfortunate
for us all.
.................... Spam?! Khalaas!