Nuclear Back-Scratching

Fifteen years ago – on the eve of the disintegration of the Soviet Union – Congress authorized financial and technical assistance to the Russians to help them secure, store, and dismantle excess Soviet nuclear weapons and to peacefully dispose of the excess weapons-grade materials recovered thereby.

Furthermore, under the 1997 U.S.-Russia Trilateral Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, we are committed to dispose of our excess weapons-grade plutonium and to pay the Russians to peacefully dispose of theirs.

The Russians intend to dispose of theirs as uranium-plutonium mixed-oxide power plant fuel (MOX), and to, thereafter, continue making MOX – under IAEA supervision – using plutonium recovered from spent fuel.

A nuclear fuel element is typically left in a conventional water-moderated, water-cooled nuclear power plant for four or five years. About 3-5 percent of a new enriched-uranium fuel element is fissile and will "burn." Additionally, in the "burning" of fissile uranium, fissile plutonium is bred from the non-fissile uranium.

Hence, when the typical fuel element is removed from the power plant, about two-thirds of its uranium-plutonium fissile material (and virtually all its uranium non-fissile – but breedable – material] remains "unburned."

Hence the spent-fuel element is still worth – as fuel – about two-thirds as much as was the original fuel element.

Hence in Europe and Russia, spent-fuel elements are chemically reprocessed, and remaining uranium-plutonium fissile material – as well as the very large amount of breedable uranium – is recovered and incorporated into new fuel elements.

Because enriched uranium is needed only for the original uranium fuel element, the need for uranium-enrichment services – and for new supplies of yellowcake – will be drastically reduced once the MOX fuel cycle is fully implemented.

What has all this got to do with current Israeli and neo-crazy American threats to destroy the Russian-built IAEA safeguarded nuclear power plant now nearing completion at Bushehr, Iran? Or to destroy the IAEA safeguarded uranium-enrichment facility barely under construction at Natanz, Iran?

Well, the rest of the world – concerned about nuke proliferation – also concluded long ago that if the Russians are willing to burn up their weapons-grade plutonium as MOX, then they are willing to help them, financially and technically.

Even though MOX is barely cost-effective now, it undoubtedly will be very cost-effective in another 20 years or so when the world’s current supply of cheap yellowcake is near exhaustion.

Now, spent-fuel contains appreciable fractions of Pu240 and Pu241. The radioactive properties of these higher plutonium isotopes are such that (a) the recovery of the plutonium from the spent fuel, (b) the manufacture of the MOX-fuel elements, and (c) the installation of the MOX in the power plant need to be well-coordinated, with the time interval between each step essentially minimized.

So the Russians intend to build (with international financial assistance) humongous spent-fuel storage facilities and MOX-fuel fabrication plants. The Russians will then charge the rest of the world annual fees for storing their spent fuel and for fabricating new MOX fuel.

The Russians intend to build several dozen reactors – in Russia and elsewhere – specifically designed to run efficiently on MOX fuel. Meanwhile, existing water-moderated, water-cooled reactors are already operating – with relatively modest modifications to the plant and to operating procedures – on MOX fuel in Russia, Japan, and elsewhere.

So what should the Iranian mullahs do, if they’re smart?

Forget about enriching uranium.

Have the Russians make – before it begins operation – certain modifications to the Bushehr power plant so that it can use Russian MOX fuel.

But how can the Iranians be assured of a Russian fuel supply in future?

They can’t. The Iranians haven’t got anything the Russians need.

But the Iranians do have something the Pakistanis (and the Indians, and the Chinese) need. And need badly.

Natural gas.

Now, the Pakistanis have uranium-enrichment facilities, and for at least the last 15 years have been offering uranium-enrichment services.

Furthermore, IAEA safeguarded facilities employ efficient supersonic second-generation gas centrifuges.

However, the uranium-enrichment facility the Iranians had been planning to construct at Natanz will use unreliable, much less efficient, first-generation gas centrifuges essentially obtained secondhand from Pakistan.

So why doesn’t the Islamic state of Iran cut a deal with the neighboring Islamic state of Pakistan to obtain from them a guaranteed contingent supply of enriched uranium in return for a guaranteed supply of Iranian natural gas?

Well, recall that Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki did recently meet with his Pakistani counterpart “to bolster defense, trade, and cultural ties."

They reportedly focused on the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline, but at a joint press conference afterwards, Foreign Minister Kasuri made it clear that nuke-armed Pakistan would oppose any use of force against Iran’s IAEA safeguarded nuclear fuel-cycle programs.


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.