The controversy about Iran's nuclear activities was raised earlier this year when officials from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran was building a surprisingly sophisticated uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. Initial information about this plant had come last year not from Iranian government but from an exiled opposition group. In this posting I would like to provide a more technical view of the current situation.
There are only two realistic uses for uranium enrichment: to produce low-enriched uranium fuel for nuclear reactors and to produce highly-enriched uranium for fissile heart of nuclear weapons. Tehran claims that it is pursuing a nuclear program for energy production only. However, practically and economically, establishing an enrichment facility cannot be justified for the current civilian program (Bushehr nuclear reactor), for which Russia had agreed to prove the uranium fuel. One report suggests that the gas that Iran's oil industry routinely burns would generate several times the electricity expected from the controversial Bushehr reactor.
There are some other suspicious nuclear activities in Iran. For instance, Iran has turned some of its imported uranium (from China) into uranium metal: a bomb ingredient! It can also be used in some kinds of reactor fuel, but it has no use in Iran's planned reactors. Iran has also announced a plan to build a heavy-water research reactor in Arak. Heavy water is extremely useful in making plutonium for bombs and the existing power program depends on light-water reactor. Yet, the main controversies about Iran's nuclear plan remains around its uranium enrichment activities.
The process of uranium enrichment is incredibly difficult and energy intensive. Thousands of tons of uranium ore should be processed into powder form called yellowcake. Then it needs to be refined and converted to a uranium hexafluoride gas that requires a separate chemical plant itself. Only then the real enrichment work can be started, based on either a membrane or centrifuge plant, which is the size of at least 10 football fields. More that 100 centrifuge casings have already been installed in Natanz!
Many of the techniques required for the above process are safeguarded by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). So Iran had to undertake a secrete program to acquire the advanced hardware and technical knowledge. Where form, is still a question. But possible candidates are Russia, China, Pakistan and North Korea.
There are several ways to monitor the nuclear activities of the country. Very advanced technologies are needed to stop the discharges emitted from the plants. In a rush to build up a nuclear arsenal, Iran probably does not have the time and resources to implement such facilities. By monitoring such emissions, both atmospheric and aquatic, it is possible to determine the state of progress in weapon development that Iran might have reached. Satellite thermal imaging can also spot such energy intensive plants easily.
However, the main international concern is that Iran already has the basic technologies needed for weapons making. From now on it could stay even within the tougher rules, polishing its enrichment and other skills that are all legal for civilian purposes under the NPT. Then a 90-day notice is all that required to quit and go rapidly nuclear. Such undermining the NPT's peaceful intent from inside makes the treaty worse than useless. (Countries like Israel, India and Pakistan never joined the treaty and North Korea withdrew in January 2003.)
Despite the above controversies, no evidence has found so far that can 'prove' Tehran's intention for nuclear weapons. The Bushehr electricity generating reactor has the capacity of 1,000 MW. Iran claims over next 20 years it intends to build several more reactors with a total capacity of 6,000 MW. Meanwhile, it aims to master all the technologies of the nuclear-fuel-cycle, hence building a fuel manufacturing plant at Isfahan.
Currently there are more questions than answers regarding Iran's nuclear plan. But one point is clear: time has past for Russia to suspend its nuclear dealings with Iran, and for Europeans to call off their trade talks. If Iran has started a nuclear weapon program it will not see the benefit of giving it up, unless the price of keeping it is driven up sharply.
For more information see:
Iran's Nuclear Threat, Time
Time to Call a Halt, The Economist (subscribers only)
Fissionable, The Economist (subscribers only)
Iran's Nuclear Plan: Q&A, BBC News
Iran needs nuclear power, International Herald Tribune