Nuclear Iran – The controversial issue of Iran gaining nuclear power

Materials World magazine
1 Mar 2008

A few months ago the Deputy Editor of an Iranian newspaper rang me to ask if, as Vice-Chair of British Pugwash, I agreed that, Iran, as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, had every right to construct nuclear power stations and related facilities for peaceful purposes.

I had to agree, but suggested that with all its oil Iran did not really need nuclear power. I also asked why had they been so secretive about their nuclear activities? Before discussing further our telephone conversation, I will present some background to Iran's nuclear endeavours.

During a period when it was quite desperate to earn foreign currency, Russia agreed to complete the construction of one of Iran's civil nuclear reactors at Bushehr and, much more worryingly, to supply her with a research reactor and uranium enrichment facilities. 'Enrichment' is the process of increasing the U235 content of uranium from its 'natural' level of 0.7% to about 3.5% for reactor fuel, or to >90% for weapons-grade material.

Putting pressure on Russia

In 1998, I was a member of a small study group at a meeting in Moscow discussing the future of Russia's Atomic Cities. One of our members was Robert McNamara and it was perhaps because of this that we were invited to interview Victor Mikhailov, the Russian official who had negotiated the Iranian 'deal'. Disappointingly, our arguments against Russia supplying a research reactor and enrichment facilities to Iran cut no ice with the Minister. However, subsequent pressure from the US (who were contributing large sums to assist Russia) led to the cancellation of the research reactor and enrichment facilities. Russia agreed to manufacture the nuclear fuel for the Bushehr reactor within its own borders and to receive back the spent fuel.

Sadly, this valuable development was negated largely by the actions of a Pakistani metallurgist, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan. Wishing to break the American monopoly on the supply of enriched uranium for reactor fuel, an Anglo-German-Dutch consortium, URENCO, had developed a highly successful enrichment process using fast gaseous centrifuges. Kahn had spent some time working at an URENCO centre at Almelo in Holland, where he learned the secrets of the enrichment process and was able to copy the drawings of the centrifuges. With this knowledge he persuaded the Pakistan Government to construct a centrifugal enrichment facility which produced sufficient enriched uranium for the production of a number of atomic weapons. These were tested in 1998 as Pakistan's response to India's atomic tests.

Enriching other countries

Not satisfied with this 'success' Khan assisted North Korea, Libya and Iran with their nuclear ambitions. He particularly helped Iran, which secretly created an underground enrichment site at Natanz employing up to 3,000 centrifuges. However, in 2003, fearing that Iran might be next in line as an American target following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the country closed down the enrichment facility. Subsequently, with the prospect of improved centrifuges, Iran re-started its enrichment plant in 2005.

Returning to the telephone conversation, I recounted much of the above to the journalist but he thought it essential that Iran should not be dependent on a foreign country for its nuclear fuel supplies. I then had what I thought was a brainwave. I suggested that when a reactor is purchased there is no reason in principle why it should not be possible to buy simultaneously enough fuel for the whole of the reactor's lifetime. I recognised that such stockpiles would have to be kept abroad or under international supervision in Iran. The journalist was surprised that unirradiated fuel is so durable. He liked the idea and, on that amicable note, we drew our conversation to a close.


Further information:

Pugwash UK
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty