In July 2015, six world powers concluded their negotiations with Iran on its nuclear power program. Parties like US President Barack Obama congratulated himself and the negotiating team for “prevent[ing] Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and ensur[ing] that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful going forward.”
That claim is questionable in the short-term and clearly false in the long-term. What is certain, was the deal established the new parameters for peaceful nuclear power for the world to (potentially) replicate.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (3rd L) delivers a statement during a ceremony next to British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (L-R) at the United Nations in Geneva November 24, 2013 (Reuters / Denis Balibouse) / Reuters
Nuclear Energy versus Nuclear Weapons
There are thirty-one countries in the world that have nuclear power plants for generating electricity and nine countries which have nuclear weapons. Those countries are (countries in bold posses both nuclear energy and weapons):
- Nuclear power plants (31): United States; France; Russia; South Korea; China; Canada; Germany; Ukraine; UK; Sweden; Spain; Belgium; India; Czech Republic; Switzerland; Finland; Slovakia; Hungary; Japan; Brazil; South Africa; Bulgaria; Mexico; Romania; Argentina; Slovenia; Pakistan; Iran; Netherlands; Armenia
- Nuclear weapons (9): Russia; United States; France; China; United Kingdom; Pakistan; India; Israel; North Korea
There are more than 31 countries that use electricity from nuclear plants – such as Italy and Denmark that each get over 10% of their power from nuclear plants – but do not host nuclear power plants in their country. Nuclear power plants generate 14% of the electricity in the world.
Safety Concerns of Nuclear Energy
Despite the sizable role that nuclear electricity-generation plays, there are many safety concerns.
Peaceful power plants: Notable “meltdowns” of peaceful nuclear power plants include Ukraine (1986); United States (1979); and Japan (2011). Countries with nuclear power plants institute many safety procedures to protect the surrounding areas from potential nuclear radiation fallout.
Fuel: Beyond the plants themselves, countries carefully manage the materials that are the basis for nuclear power: raw uranium and plutonium (that are mined); enriched uranium and plutonium (suitable for use in nuclear power or weapons); and spent fuel rods (post-use, no longer able to generate electricity, but have radiation).
- Mining: Uranium is mined in 20 countries, with 90% mined in just a handful of countries: Australia; Kazakhstan; Russia; Canada; Niger; Namibia; South Africa; Brazil; USA; and China. Plutonium, while found in trace amounts in nature, is created in nuclear plants by modifying uranium.
- Spent fuel: Edwin Lyman and Harold Feiveson have written about safety concerns of spent fuel. Spent nuclear reactor fuel is highly radioactive and contains significant concentration of weapons-usable plutonium isotopes. Some countries like the USA, Canada and Sweden plan to store the spent fuel in geologic repositories. Others like UK and France reprocess the spent fuel and separate the plutonium from the uranium. Such uranium, which can be handled, becomes a potential source for theft to be used in nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapon facilities: Some nuclear facilities do not focus on generating electricity but are built specifically to produce weapons of mass destruction. These facilities pose risks not only from the radioactive materials or potential fallout from a meltdown of the plant, but from the massive destruction that such weapons can produce.
End-to-End Nuclear Facilities
Most countries with peaceful nuclear power plants do not have end-to-end facilities which can produce nuclear-generated power completely on their own. Countries do not typically mine uranium, enrich it, produce the electricity and store or reprocess the spent fuel. For example, Japan, which gets over 30% of its power from 50 nuclear plants, imports uranium from Australia, Kazakhstan and Canada. Historically, Japan relied on other countries for various steps of its nuclear program, but it has recently taken steps to enrich the raw uranium and reprocess some of the spent fuel inside Japan. For the most part, spent fuel has still been stored in the UK and France.
With the new 2015 P5+1 deal with Iran, Iran will have complete end-to-end nuclear capabilities with global approval.
Iranian Uranium Mines: Iran opened two uranium mines in 2013, the Saghand mine and Gchine mine, that provide some uranium for its enrichment program (but these have low concentrations of uranium). The two mines in the city of Saghand in central Iran operate 1,150 feet underground.
Iranian Milling Facility: Approximately 75km from Saghand is the Ardakan mill which processes the uranium into yellowcake.
Iranian Enrichment Facility: The Uranium Enrichment Facility at Isfahan purifies the yellowcake to UF6, a gas, which enables it to be enriched. Enrichment increases the proportion of the U-235 isotope from its natural level of 0.7% to 3-5%.
After enrichment, the UF6 gas is converted to uranium dioxide (UO2) which is formed into fuel pellets. These fuel pellets are placed inside thin metal tubes which are assembled in bundles to become the fuel elements for the core of the reactor.
Natanz is Iran’s primary enrichment facility and consists of three underground buildings, two of which are designed to hold fifty thousand centrifuges, and six buildings built above ground. It’s stated purpose is to produce enriched uranium for use in both the Tehran Research Reactor (requiring 19.75% U-235 content) and fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power plant (requiring 3.5% U-235 content).
The Fordow Enrichment Plant is a large underground industrial facility located near the city of Qom. The site includes two underground halls each able to hold 1,500 centrifuges. Iran failed to disclose the existence of the Fordow facility until it was revealed publicly by western governments in 2009.
A heavy water nuclear reactor near Arak was first identified by US satellite images in 2002. Heavy water reactors produce a lot of plutonium waste product as part of enriching uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons.
The nuclear reactor at Bushehr on the Arabian Gulf, was started by Germany in the early 1970s, but suspended after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Russia took over constructing the plant and started delivering the nuclear fuel in May 2011.
Iran will soon have a complete end-to-end nuclear program which would include several underground and fortified nuclear sites.
From Nuclear Energy to Nuclear Weapons
There is a narrow gap between the assets and capability needed to build a power plant and what is needed to build weapons of mass destruction. A brief primer from the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI):
“Both nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs use either uranium or plutonium to create a nuclear chain reaction that releases energy. The speed with which they release energy is the crucial difference between the two: in a reactor the energy release is controlled and sustained over an extended period, whereas in a nuclear bomb the release occurs in fractions of a second. The science of fission is fairly straightforward; however, controlling fission reactions to get the desired effect is challenging.“
While on the surface it may appear that the infrastructure required for both electricity and weaponry is the same (just some technical understanding stands in the gap), the reality is more complicated.
“To develop a nuclear device, the difference in the speed of the chain reaction creates additional requirements for the firing mechanism, grade of the uranium or plutonium used, and the density, physical surrounding and shape of the fissile material. These differences are substantial barriers to a state looking to shift from power production to assembling a nuclear device.”
In short, the raw materials and infrastructure are very similar, while the technical capabilities are a bit more complicated.
Iran’s Nuclear Program: from Energy to Weapons?
According to CIGI: “a peaceful program provides the scientific foundation
upon which a state can go on to build and operate its own dedicated plutonium production reactor to produce the material for a nuclear weapon… The main benefit derived from a once-through nuclear energy program for the construction of a nuclear device is the buildup of nuclear infrastructure that would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible, to camouflage…. a peaceful nuclear energy program is best characterized as a stepping stone to acquiring the wherewithal for a nuclear device.”
The White House produced a summary of how the contemplated 2015 deal would block Iran from converting a peaceful program into a weapons program:
- Reduce level of raw uranium: cut stockpile (mostly acquired in the past from South Africa) by 98%
- Block enriching uranium: by reducing centrifuge count at Natanz and Fordow
- Cap the enrichment level: to 3.67%, below the required level to produce weapons
- Block plutonium production: reconfigure Arak plant so it cannot produce plutonium; ship out all spent fuel. Additionally, no new construction of heavy-water reactors for 15 years
In July 2015, the P5+1 countries effectively endorsed the acceptable parameters of a valid and peaceful nuclear energy program.
Creating the New Paradigm for All Countries
Which begs the question, if there are 31 countries that have nuclear power plants, why are there only 9 with nuclear weapons? Do they not have the technical capabilities for producing a weapon? Lack the desire? How much effort and infrastructure would it take for a country like Hungary to go from a peaceful nuclear program to a weapons program?
If a known state-sponsor of terrorism which calls for the annihilation of other countries (Iran) is permitted to keep such a vast nuclear infrastructure, every other country would be permitted to build comparable nuclear infrastructure. This is true for countries with existing nuclear plants like Armenia, or non-nuclear countries like Venezuela. In other words, this deal marks the world’s endorsement of a baseline peaceful nuclear program.
This is obviously very dangerous for the safety and security of the entire world.
A Better Alternative
US President Obama and others have questioned whether there is a better alternative. Here are some possible points that should be considered before blessing an explosion of “peaceful” nuclear infrastructure construction in the world:
- No end-to-end capabilities. As a checks-and-balance for nuclear proliferation, no country should be able to maintain a complete mines-to-reactor program. Countries which are state-sponsors of terrorism should be barred from two components of a complete program. For Iran, they would likely opt to abandon their mines which are not very productive anyway. They would then be left with a choice of modifying their global behavior or giving up another component of their program (maybe opting to ship all spent fuel out of the country permanently).
- No underground fortified facilities. As a global precaution against a peaceful program becoming weaponized, no nuclear enrichment facilities should be fortified to such a level that destroying them with conventional weapons becomes nearly impossible. This would require Iran dismantling some of their underground facilities or making them less fortified.
- Anytime, anywhere inspections. All peaceful nuclear facilities should be available for inspections by the IAEA at anytime. For this Iranian deal, it would require a more stringent approach than the lengthy 24-day process currently contemplated.
- Cap on centrifuges. Not only should the number of centrifuges of a country be capped, but no facility should be able to have over a certain number of centrifuges (for example, a cap of 6000 in a country, and no single facility with over 1,500).
These are some examples which should become a requirement of every country for every peaceful nuclear power program. These steps would help protect the entire world from a step-up from peaceful nuclear energy to threshold nuclear weapons.
The current P5+1 Iranian nuclear deal cannot be viewed in a simple comparison of whether the deal is better than no deal. It must be viewed in the context of establishing a new baseline for the use of nuclear power around the world. On such basis, it is easy to see the existing shortfalls.
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