Should we really be accelerating Iran's nuclear project?
In last week’s presidential debate, John Kerry complained that the U.S. should have offered Iran’s mullahs lightly enriched uranium to “test” whether they “were actually looking for it for peaceful purposes.” Although his suggestion seemed odd–Iran, after all, is suspected of trying to enrich uranium to make bombs–it has so far received scant attention. But closer look at the idea should set off alarm bells.
Under almost any scenario, implementing Kerry’s proposal would not only bring Iran closer to having a bomb, it would also help Iran get a large arsenal–two things the U.S. and its allies are rightly eager to prevent.
Many people, of course, would like to believe that the security risks presented by Iran’s nearly completed light-water power reactor at Bushehr are manageable. The key challenge, they argue, is to get Tehran to forgo commercially producing the weapons-usable reactor fuels–enriched uranium and separated plutonium–that Iranian officials insist they have the right to make in order to fuel Bushehr.
One would do well to challenge this assertion, which Iran’s mullahs base on a cynical manipulation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s (NPT) endorsement of peaceful nuclear energy. The NPT is designed to prevent nations from acquiring nuclear weapons. Nowhere does it mention either enrichment or reprocessing, and rightly so: These nuclear activities are grossly uneconomical for nations like Iran and can bring states within days of having a large stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Rather than confront Iran on these points, Kerry’s campaign has already ceded them. His website actually maintains that the NPT allows such activities and that, as such, new deals such as the one he proposes for Iran are necessary and desirable not just for Tehran, but for North Korea and other would-be bomb makers as well. Such looseness with the NPT is worrisome. What’s worse is that Kerry’s proposed fix–offering states such as Iran fresh reactor fuel in exchange for assurances that they will hand over their plutonium-laden spent fuel and forgo enrichment and reprocessing–is spring-loaded to compound our proliferation worries.
First, as a string of nuclear-intelligence surprises have demonstrated with Libya, North and South Korea, Algeria, Iraq, and Iran, assuming you can verify a nation’s NPT pledges is a sure-fire prescription for embarrassment. Despite intensified U.S. and allied intelligence efforts and the much-improved inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), states’ covert efforts to produce weapons-usable plutonium and uranium have proceeded for years without being discovered. With recent revelations that the father of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program developed and sold key nuclear-weapons technology and hardware for years through entities from over 30 countries, the threat that additional states might succeed at covert nuclear activities has only increased.
Second and directly related to this point, it is a mistake to assume, as Kerry does, that light-water reactors are sufficiently “proliferation resistant” to be entrusted to virtually anyone (including Iran and North Korea) so long as there are no accompanying commercial enrichment or reprocessing activities.
Last week, the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, which I direct, released a two-year study, “A Fresh Examination of the Proliferation Dangers of Light Water Reactors,” authored by three national authorities on power reactors, atomic-weapons design, and nuclear chemistry. A key conclusion of this report is that a country can reduce the level of effort needed to produce a bomb five-fold simply by using fresh light-water-reactor fuel rather than natural uranium to feed its uranium-enrichment plants.
In Iran’s case, this is significant. Earlier this year, Tehran was reported to be assembling the parts necessary to build 1,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges. We don’t know whether it has completed these machines or where they all might be. Assuming for argument’s sake that the work was done and that the machines were hidden away, even a five-fold reduction in its production effort would mean Iran could have its first bomb not sometime in early 2006 but this year in time for Christmas.
Could Iran divert fresh fuel for this purpose? The short answer is yes. About enough fresh fuel to make 30 crude bombs’ worth of weapons uranium is normally must be kept at the ready at a reactor site for safety reasons. IAEA inspectors, meanwhile, account for this fuel only once every twelve months. One could surely keep better tabs on the fuel than this, but even if one did and detected a diversion, the question would remain: What would one do?
As for Kerry’s other idea of taking back spent fuel from the power reactor to keep Iran from extracting the weapons-usable plutonium it contains, this too ignores several stubborn facts. For starters, spent fuel is so radioactive when it first leaves the reactor that it’s dangerous to move it over long distances until after it has had some months to cool off in wet storage ponds. During this cooling period, however, a country could divert the material to strip out the plutonium locally without undue hazard if it did so quickly. Because the IAEA only examines its spent-fuel-inspection camera footage every three months, there’s a good chance Iran could pinch the fuel without being found out.
What’s worse, even if the diversion was detected, it would almost certainly come too late. As the aforementioned study makes clear, a nation could secretly build a small reprocessing plant and have it ready to make the first bomb’s worth of plutonium only a few days after receiving its first delivery of spent fuel. According to published nuclear-industry and national-laboratory design studies, relatively high-output reprocessing plants could be built in a space as small as 65 square feet. As for the quality of the plutonium these plants could extract, it would be nearly weapons-grade and could be relied on to build bombs as destructive as that dropped on Hiroshima. Finally, and perhaps most chilling, after the first 15 months of operation, Iran would have enough spent fuel from Bushehr to produce nearly 60 of these weapons.
What does all this suggest? Letting Iran keep its light-water reactor and giving it fresh reactor fuel might well smoke out Tehran’s nuclear intentions but only at the risk of accelerating its bomb project. Certainly, if giving Iran a leg up in covertly making bomb material is the kind of “sound judgment” Kerry believes our next president should exercise, we are all in for a rough ride. Bush, in contrast, believes we should get the U.N. Security Council to censure Iran so Bushehr is not completed. This idea seems far less flashy, but unlike Kerry’s proposal it gets to the real problem, which is not any uncertainty regarding Iran’s peaceful intentions but rather its clear bent for bombs. This is where any sound policy must start.