Weapons-Grade Paranoia

According to Undersecretary of State John Bolton, "[T]he United States strongly believes that Iran has a clandestine program to produce nuclear weapons, and has been warning publicly about Tehran’s weapons ambitions for over a decade."

Now, having nuke ambitions is one thing. Having the fissile material – plutonium-239 or uranium-235 – needed to produce nukes is quite another.

The key to preventing nuke proliferation is the international control of the production, processing, transformation, and disposition of certain nuclear materials. In return for a promise to not acquire or seek to acquire nukes, the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons recognizes the "inalienable right" of all signatories to enjoy the peaceful benefits of nuclear energy. But all NPT-proscribed nuclear materials – as well as the facilities in which they are stored, processed, transformed, or consumed – have to be made subject to an International Atomic Energy Agency Safeguards Agreement.

More than a year ago, Iran signed an Additional Protocol to its Safeguards Agreement, vastly expanding the authority of IAEA inspectors to go anywhere and see anything. Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has just reported to the IAEA Board of Governors that after a year-long exhaustive and intrusive inspection he has found no evidence yet that Iran has (or ever has had) a nuke program.

So, perhaps what Bolton should have said is that the United States strongly believes – despite all evidence to the contrary – that Iran has a clandestine program to produce nuclear weapons.

Take, for example, the nuclear power plant under construction at Bushehr, Iran. Siemens began construction in the 1970s of two plants at Bushehr and had nearly finished one of them when both were practically destroyed during the Iran-Iraq War.

Until 1995, the U.S. effectively prohibited any Western-based engineering firm from resuming construction. But then, Russia overrode U.S. objections and agreed – in return for about $800 million in hard currency – to build a conventional, Soviet-designed 1,000-MWe nuclear power plant at Bushehr. Now scheduled for completion in 2006, it will, of course, be made subject to Iran’s Safeguards Agreement.

Anti-nuclear activists charge that the Iranians can and will produce nukes from plutonium they recover from the reactor’s spent fuel. That’s nonsense, of course, but the neo-crazies have echoed that charge.

You see, as the fissile U-235 isotope in uranium fuel is “burned” in a nuclear reactor, a small amount of plutonium is bred. Initially, the fissile Pu-239 isotope is produced. But as more fuel is burned, more and more fissile and non-fissile plutonium isotopes will be produced.

All plutonium atoms have the same chemical properties. Therefore, the plutonium atoms can be chemically separated out. But weapons-grade plutonium must be about 90 percent Pu-239. So, there is a definite limit to the length of time – much less than a year – the fuel can be allowed to remain in the operating reactor if weapons-grade plutonium is to be produced.

But the IAEA will see to it that the Russian-owned fuel will remain – on average – in the Safeguarded Iranian reactor for more than four years. Hence, the plutonium eventually recovered (after it has been sent back to Russia) from the Russian-owned spent fuel will be less than 60 percent Pu-239 and definitely not weapons-grade.

Bolton and the neo-crazies know that. So, they argue that as soon as Bushehr has operated for a few months, Iran will withdraw from the NPT, throw out the IAEA and the Russians, and proceed to separate out enough weapons-grade plutonium to make a few nukes. Therefore, the neo-crazies argue, we must never allow Bushehr to begin operating.

Well, to Bolton’s consternation, the European Union has rejected his arguments and has made a deal, endorsed by China and Russia, with Iran. If – in addition to adhering to the IAEA Additional Protocol – Iran will suspend its uranium-enrichment activities, they’ll see to it that nuclear power plants are just the beginning of the benefits Iran will receive.

Iran’s wish list includes fuel for Iranian power plants at market prices, the resumption of EU-Iran Trade and Cooperation Agreement negotiations, and EU support for Iran’s application for World Trade Organization membership.

So, what do the neo-crazies intend to do about the clandestine nuke program that spy satellites in space and IAEA inspectors on the ground can’t find? Well, when The New Republic’s Franklin Foer asked Bolton at a recent conference at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs if the use of military force was still an option, Bolton replied, “No options are off the table.”

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Author: Gordon Prather

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.