Iran: the next Japan?

27 May 2009

Israel has 50 to 200 nuclear weapons, “implosion” type, tested and reliable, courtesy of France. They contain plutonium, produced in the heavy water reactor and recovered in the reprocessing plant, both at Dimona, supplied by France. Israel has not signed the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Iran has signed the NPT, has a nuclear power programme that is fully safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency and is most important to Iran’s interests because of diminishing supplies of oil. Iran produces low enriched uranium needed for nuclear power because of its past experience with denial by the United States of important fuel cycle technology that had been promised.

Iran’s low-enriched uranium as uranium (2 to 5%U-235) hexaflouride (UF6) will be converted to uranium oxide for use as fuel for nuclear power. Uranium of this enrichment can be fairly easily handled without great danger of a criticality accident.

Low-enriched uranium cannot be used to make a nuclear weapon. The UF6 would have to be withdrawn from fully safeguarded inventories and returned to gas centrifuges for further enrichment, to about 90% U-235. This material would then need to be processed into metal, for use in a”gun” type weapon. Facilities for processing uranium into metal probably do not exist in Iran, and there is much more danger from criticality during such processing.

The uranium metal would then need to be cast, fabricated, machined into precise parts for a gun-type weapon (like cylinder and piston rings) and then assembled, with high explosive, into a weapon. All processing would be very dangerous, and the assembled weapon would likely not be “One-point” safe. First such US weapons were not; a torpedo bomber with such a weapon crashing and catching fire on a carrier deck would have about 5 minutes to put fire out prior to full nuclear detonation.

A gun-type weapon requires about 100 pounds of U-235, which would require about 2-1/2 tons of uranium enriched to 2% U235 to produce. Losses during processing and fabrication would at least double the amount needed.

The diversion of this much uranium from safeguarded inventories would be easily detected; time needed to make a weapon by Iran would be two to four years. Israel does not have experience with uranium-based nuclear weapons, and quality of its technical assessment of intelligence of Iran’s nuclear programme is probably limited.

I hope that you will support leaving Iran like Japan – a nation with an increasingly sophisticated nuclear fuel cycle programme that is carefully safeguarded to manage proliferation risks.

I was US coordinator with Japan for nuclear fuel cycle development during final few years of my career at DoE and visited Japan's fuel cycle centre at Rokkasho-mura with US Senate energy committee chairman Frank Murkowski in December 1996. Unfortunately, the reprocessing technology that I inherited for the collaboration was flawed and the reprocessing plant there is much too expensive and will have problems.

The reprocessing technology promised to Iran by us in 1970 was also flawed (similar to that provided to India, used for US nuclear power fuel, etc). I can provide full details.

We also need to accept that Iran's relationship with Hamas and Hezbollah will continue, and be willing to work with Tehran to integrate these groups into lasting settlement of the Middle East's core political conflicts.

Author Info:

Clinton Bastin is a retired US Department of Energy Chemical Engineer/Nuclear Scientist


I now support an expansion of nuclear power.

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