The international community continues to condemn Iran for nuclear activities that, in their context, can have no other purpose than the production of fissile material for the fabrication of nuclear weapons. However, there is an important distinction to be made between the proliferation significance of the Bushehr power reactor, that is about to come into operation, and virtually all the other nuclear activities that Iran has been engaged in for a number of years (see my columns on this site on September 6th and 19th of last year). To be sure, the processing of uranium ore, its conversion into uranium hexachloride, and subsequent enrichment could be claimed to be relevant to the manufacture of fuel rods for civilian purposes. The trouble with this justification is that Iran really only has one plant that could use these rods (Bushehr) and the fuel for this has already been provided by Russia, who also completed the building of the reactor. Indeed, the Russian contract under which this was done specifies that in addition to supplying fresh fuel, they will also take away the spent fuel, for storage, or reprocessing. Iran, therefore, needs to do nothing in the way of preparing fresh fuel itself and nothing in the way of ‘completing’ the nuclear fuel cycle by reprocessing.
It also needs to be noted that Iran’s preparing to manufacture its own fresh fuel for the Bushehr reactor makes no economic sense whatsoever. Not only is Russia committed to continuing to supply at a cost that Iran could not possibly match, but it is also hardly likely to breach this agreement. With the so-called ‘nuclear renaissance’ going on, Russia is a competitor with other suppliers for just the sort of deal it has with Iran. It would seriously undercut its attractiveness as an energy partner if it were to renege in such a way and, even in the unlikely event that it did, it would hardly be a problem for Iran. There are plenty of potential suppliers around the world who could supply fuel rods for the kind of light-water reactor that Iran has.
As noted at the outset, the Bushehr reactor is not a significant proliferation risk in itself. The fresh fuel will contain uranium enriched to 4-5%. This is better than the natural uranium at 0.7% but it is a very long way from the around 90% required for a nuclear bomb. It is not a very promising starting material either, since the uranium is in the form of pellets of oxide in a stout metal sheath.
Spent fuel from Bushehr will certainly contain plutonium-239, which in the eyes of some, could form the basis of a plutonium weapon, given the capability to extract it. However, there is a major problem here, too, and the appearance of proliferation danger is deceptive. Fuel rods are normally taken from a commercial light-water reactor after a period of two or three years. After a ‘burn-up’ of this duration, only slightly over half of the plutonium is plutonium-239 and the rest is made up of other isotopes, which are not fissile. They also have much shorter half lives. This means that the plutonium is very dangerously radioactive and will continuously produce a lot of heat. These three things together mean that ‘commercial-grade’ plutonium is completely unsuitable for making nuclear bombs.
To avoid this latter problem, and actually make ‘weapons-grade’ plutonium, requires a burn-up time of only a few days. After this the fuel rods must be removed. At this stage, the amount of plutonium is small but it is almost all plutonium-239. However, this cannot really be done with a reactor of the Bushehr type. A light-water reactor needs to be shut down in order for fuel rods to be removed (or inserted). To run Bushehr as a (weapons-grade) plutonium production reactor would require it to be shut down at weekly intervals. This would be a very inconvenient power source and the fact that it was shut down would be hard to conceal. (Dedicated plutonium production reactors are of a design that avoids this problem.)
For these reasons, it is clear that the international community should not be concerned about the imminent start-up of the Iranian Bushehr reactor, per se. Indeed, to vociferously object to it, only plays into the hands of those who, against all the facts, want to claim that Iran’s nuclear activities in general are peaceful and it is just that the world (because of certain political antipathies) wants to inhibit the country’s development.
It should be made clear that Iran has every right to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes and that this principle is not altered by the fact that Iran has a plentiful supply of oil. From a global point of view, oil is a limited resource and there are purposes (such as transportation) for which it is particularly appropriate. Equally, there are purposes (such as the generation of electricity) for which nuclear power is particularly suitable.
Whether Iran has a ‘right’ to develop nuclear weapons is another matter; moot for the moment since Iran denies that this is what it is doing. For this writer, though, the matter is clear. A state whose leadership espouses anti-Semitism and frequently speaks of destroying Israel, as well as threatening the Western world with unspecified harm, should not be permitted to develop the capability to carry out its threats. On the other hand, we should have no objection to the steady development of an Iranian nuclear power industry under appropriate (i.e. IAEA) supervision.