I have written about the Iranian nuclear program in various fora and each time it is like hitting the third rail. It still amazes me. The problem is that no one knows for sure what’s happening, and the Iranians are happy to keep it this way so you have to guess. My latest post about Iran’s progress toward making a bomb provoked the usual ire from some quarters of the Internet, including a piece on the blog Wide Asleep in America written by Nima Shirazi. Here is a sample of his argument:
What Bernstein intentionally leaves out of his hysterical hand-wringing is the fact that Iran has been enriching uranium to 19.75 percent (which is almost invariably rounded up to 20 percent to sound more ominous, since enrichment to 20 percent and above constitutes “high-enriched” uranium, rather than “low-enriched”) for the sole purpose of continuing to provide much needed medical diagnostic isotopes for scanning and treating over 800,000 cancer patients. Iran turned to this higher level of enrichment only as a last resort to replenish its supply of medical isotopes which, after more than two decades, has been depleted (the last batch of 23 kg of 19.75 percent LEU was obtained in 1988 from Argentina). In advance of running out, Iran tried to purchase more on the open market under full IAEA supervision, yet this move was prevented by the United States and the subsequent LEU swap deal was canceled after the U.S. refused to act in good faith. The “stepping stone” of 19.75 percent LEU that Bernstein warns about is currently saving the lives of Iranian cancer patients.
Shirazi is clearly a serious and widely read person who feels strongly. It would take a book to discuss all the points he brings up and in the end I doubt that it would cause him to change his mind, but I thought I could start by addressing this one paragraph dealing with the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). This reactor has interested me for a long time. It is an avatar for everything that has gone wrong.
The TRR is located at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center in Amir Abad, a suburb of Tehran. It was originally part of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace Program and was purchased by the Shah in the mid 1960s by the American Machine and Foundry Corporation, which was better known for making bowling alleys and bicycles. It was designed to have a power output of about five megawatts (a power reactor produces at least a thousand megawatts, so it was a small reactor). One of its interesting features was that it originally ran on weapons grade, 93 percent enriched uranium. (This was the grade of uranium that was left over from the weapons program and it also simplified the designs. It is used in nuclear powered submarines.) This was true of most of these Atoms for Peace reactors and much of this uranium is unaccounted for in places like the Congo. Typically such a reactor would use about a kilogram of uranium 235 per year. The reactor went “critical”—the chain reaction became self sustaining—in 1967, and by the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979 it needed more fuel.
At first it was decided that the TRR would be replaced by a so-called TRIGA—a kind of ultra-safe reactor sold by the General Atomics Company and that Freeman Dyson had played an essential role in designing. The purchase of the TRIGA was almost completed, but because of the revolution its shipment was stopped. The Iranians decided to keep the old reactor but to re-design it so it could use low enriched uranium. Highly enriched uranium was not available as it was used for weapons and was a proliferation risk.
In 1987 they signed a contract to pay the Argentinian company Investigaciones Aplicadas $5 million for 115.8 kilograms of 19.57 percent enriched uranium in the necessary fuel elements. One must understand that simply having the raw uranium is useless. Manufacturing it into fuel elements is non-trivial and there are only a few countries—France and Russia being examples—that can do it, so they would need to strike a deal with one of these countries.
As Shirazi tells us, this reactor has been used to make medical isotopes. But there are things he does not tell us. Without notifying the IAEA, which is responsible for supervising the reactor, the Iranians were extracting small amounts of plutonium from it. It is not that these small amounts can be used in weapons, but the methods used in the extraction can be scaled to extract plutonium from reactors such as the Arak reactor in central Iran which can produce enough plutonium to make two nuclear weapons per year once it goes critical. Since this reactor has not been inspected often it is difficult to say when this may happen. One date that is given is 2013. In addition the Iranians were clandestinely making Polonium 210 which is used in the so-called “initiator”—the device that initiates the explosive chain reaction of neutrons in a nuclear weapon. Again it is not the amount that matters, rather it is the clandestine study of the technology. All of this has nothing to do with cancer patients.
In recent years the TRR has been running at three megawatts to conserve fuel. It can probably keep running at this level for several more years but a re-stocking is in order. The most straightforward thing would be for the Iranians to buy the new fuel from the Agentinians. I am not aware that anyone would have objected to this. But instead a whole new set of alternatives were floated. In the first place the Iranians have nowhere near enough 19.75 percent enriched uranium to refuel the reactor even if they had the technology to make the fuel elements. So it was suggested that they send some of their 3.5 percent enriched uranium to Russia to be enriched to 19.75 percent. This would then be shipped to France where the fuel elements would be made. The Iranians objected to sending them to France since it was claimed that the French owed them money, and a variety of other options were suggested none of which were acceptable. Hence there is a stalemate, but for the moment I would assume that the medical isotopes are still being produced.
Here I would inject a personal note. I managed to find on the web a couple of technical papers on the TRR written by Iranian physicists, who supplied their email addresses. I thought that it might be interesting to have a dialogue so I emailed them explaining who I was. There was no answer.
I am not surprised. On June 8 the Iranians announced that they were going to install a new generation of centrifuges at Fordow to enrich to 19.75 percent. This is a heavily fortified facility inside a mountain. This enhanced production of enriched uranium has even less to do with the TRR. If and when they accumulate enough of it, the next step to weapons grade is entirely straightforward.