Metallurgy and Iran's atomic power

Materials World magazine
1 May 2008

'Dawn of a new nuclear age’ was a headline in the Guardian on 22 March. Supporting evidence for this renaissance was the fact that a Masters course on nuclear technology at Birmingham University had attracted 36 students – twice as many as at any other time during the 51 years of the course’s existence.

Sudden interest in places on specialist courses can indeed reflect changes in industrial (or even military) policy. I was a visiting lecturer for the Birmingham nuclear course and, in the early 1990s, saw a sharp rise in applications from Iraq and Iran. This was worrying because both countries have huge reserves of fossil fuels and so do not need nuclear power. This was probably the first evidence for nuclear weapon ambitions, which a decade later culminated in the Iraq war and acute concerns over Iran’s nuclear aspirations. The Dutch now ban Iranians from their nuclear courses (Radio Netherlands, January 2008) – should the UK follow suit?

Weapons of mass destruction

There is a metallurgical/mining theme running through this column, starting with the mostly dubious ‘evidence’ of nuclear weapon activity justifying the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush included the fateful words, ‘The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa’. He added that Iraq had been seeking large numbers of high strength aluminium tubes suitable for uranium enrichment centrifuges. In a speech to the UN, US Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed that Iraq possessed mobile laboratories designed to construct biological weapons, and Vice President Dick Cheney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars 103rd National Convention, ‘There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction (WMD)’.

Hussein had not attempted to obtain uranium ore from Africa, the aluminium tubes were casings for conventional artillery shells, and neither the mobile weapons-producing laboratories nor Iraq’s WMD existed.

Iran's Nantaz facility

The USA does not believe that Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Nantaz, with its 3,000 high speed centrifuges, is purely for civil applications. Moreover, what is the plutonium-producingheavy water reactor at Arak for, other than to produce plutonium? From time to time Iran is keen to open up discussions with the USA, but the latter demands that Iran stop its enrichment programme before this can happen. This it refuses to do – resulting in deadlock.

As a solution, William Luers, Thomas Pickering and Jim Walsh in The New York Review of Books (NYRB), 20 March, suggested that Iran conflate its Nantaz facility into a multinational enterprise so that collaborating countries (say France and Germany) can ensure that Iran does not enrich material to weapons grade (>90% U235). In response, Jeremy Bernstein (NYRB, 3 April) presented a metallurgical history of the Pakistan and Iranian enrichment centrifuges. The early design, the P1, which comprises the centrifuges at Nantaz, is unreliable, but replacing rotors with those made from maraging steel (the P2) is a significant improvement. Iran is now developing a centrifuge with carbon fibre rotors (the IR2) with even more promising properties.

Even if the Iranians agreed to continue enrichment activities on a collaborative basis, they would still need to demonstrate they are not producing plutonium by reprocessing spent fuel fromtheir Arak reactor. Iran is the world’s worst nuclear proliferation hot spot, and might yet stimulate military action.

Further information:

'Dawn of a nuclear age', the Guardian, 22 March 2008
'A solution for the US–Iran Nuclear Standoff', The New York Review of Books, 20 March 2008
' "A Solution for the US–Iran Nuclear Standoff": An Exchange', The New York Review of Books, 3 April 2008