Fueling Around with Iran and the Bomb
As the dust settles on the nuclear deal the U.S., Russia, France, the U.K., China, and Germany cut with Iran last week, it's becoming clear just how much more we will have to demand of Iran when talks resume in Vienna, Austria, October 19. The hope behind the deal was that by getting Iran to agree to ship out some portion of the uranium it already has enriched, it would push off the time Iran could get a bomb. As long as Iran continues to operate its large uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, though, it will not matter how much enriched uranium Iran sends out to have refashioned into research reactor fuel:
Iran will always be no more than a few months away from getting all the low-enriched uranium feedstock it needs to produce and fuel its first bomb.
French officials who were present when the deal was struck October 1, are now suggesting that Iran agreed to transfer 80 percent of the 1,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium it has already produced (3.5 percent of this material is weapons-grade) to Russia and France. Iran would ship it to Russia, where it would be enriched further to 19.75 percent. Then it would be shipped to France to fashion it into fuel elements, and finally, it would be shipped back to Iran for use in a small 5-megawatt research reactor near Tehran. Since Iran only needs about 1,000 kilograms of 3.5-percent-enriched uranium to enrich again to make its first bomb's worth of weapons-grade uranium, shipping most of Iran's existing stock of 3.5-percent-enriched uranium, it is argued, would help put off the date Iran might get a bomb.
There's only one problem with this: Contrary to what the French are whispering, Iran's not yet agreed to how much enriched uranium it will send out or on what schedule. That's what the meeting in Vienna on October 19 is supposed to clear up. Iran's 1,000 kilograms of uranium enriched at 3.5 percent stockpile already is more than enough to make the 20 kilograms of weapons-grade material needed for a crude bomb. If we are serious about buying time, then, we would want to have Iran ship out all of its 3.5-percent material immediately and get it to end production at Natanz. Unfortunately, Iran is unlikely to do either.
First, the Iranians don't need fresh fuel to run their research reactor all that soon. U.S. officials admit this: Iran can run this reactor with what it has on for another 12 to 18 months. So Iran has the option of not shipping anything out for another year, which would give it roughly enough time to make another 1,000 kilograms of 3.5-percent-enriched uranium at Natanz. Second, Iran has the option of dribbling out as little of its 3.5-percent-enriched uranium stash as might be needed to keep its research reactor running. Keep in mind, Iran's research reactor only burns about 7 kilograms of 19.75 percent enriched fuel a year and it only holds 31.5 kilograms of this material. To make 31.5 kilograms of 19.75-percent-enriched fuel, though, only requires that Iran ship out 192 kilograms of Iranian-made 3.5-percent uranium. As such, Iran has the option of slow rolling its outgoing uranium shipments and thereby retaining most or all of the stockpile it might need to enrich to make a bomb.
All of these points must weigh heavily on our negotiators October 19.
Finally, there is one more scenario that demands attention. What if Iran actually agreed to send all of its 3.5-percent uranium out and demanded that all of it be shipped back to Iran in one massive shipment of 19.75-percent fuel? Iran then would have roughly 164 kilograms of fresh 19.75-percent-enriched uranium. A bulk of this fresh fuel would remain outside of the reactor. Iran could, if it chose, seize it, shear open the fuel-rod cladding, leach out the uranium with nitric acid, and heat and fluorinate the uranium. In a week or two, Iran would have 19.75-percent enriched uranium hexaflouride feed, which, if fed into Natanz, could be converted into weapons-grade uranium in one-fifth the time it would take if Iran used its own 3.5-percent enriched feed. Instead of producing a bomb's worth of uranium in five months, Iran could do so in four to eight weeks.
Clearly, it would not be in our interest to send Iran all of the fuel at once unless it was under armed guard 24/7. Yet, it is difficult to understand on what grounds we would be able to persuade Iran to give in to such demands. After all, we have already agreed Iran has a "peaceful" right to 19.75-percent-enriched fuel and Iran had such material before at the reactor site years before this crisis arose. As such, routine international inspections every three months will be all we are likely to get.
Meanwhile, Iran's uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz will still be pumping out about 60 kilograms of 3.5-percent-enriched uranium a month. Although U.S. officials claim that shutting this plant down is an "ultimate" goal, there already is talk of settling for Iran not expanding its current nuclear-fuel-making capacity and operations. If so, we would be grandfathering Iran's annual ability to make most of the 3.5-percent feedstock it would require if it wanted to enrich it again to make a crude bomb's worth.
All of this is a far cry from the United Nations Security Council's standing demand that Iran cease nuclear-fuel operations and submit to intrusive inspections. Indeed, unless negotiators on October 19 bear down and get back to this objective, count on Iran getting closer to getting a bomb.
– Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and serves on the congressionally mandated Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism.