By L. R. B. Mann, M.Sc Ph.D
There is little if any doubt that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. The two main categories of nuclear bombs they are working towards are exemplified by the first atomic bombs ever exploded:
- High-enriched uranium (<25 kg), suddenly assembled to form a critical mass (as used on Hiroshima in 1945), and
- Plutonium-239 (<10 kg) suddenly compressed several-fold to render it critical at its new higher density, as tested at Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico and then used on Nagasaki in 1945.
The Encyclopedia Americana article on the subject of atomic bomb design, composed by eminent experts who had served at the heart of the USA nuclear weapons program, is surprisingly informative in regards to Iran’s aspirations.
Natural uranium contains only 0.7% of the fissile isotope U-235 (the rest is made up of U-238, which is not fissile in ordinary reactors or atomic bombs). To make an atomic bomb, the uranium U-235 must be enriched, if possible, to around 90%, though far less can work to some extent.
Uranium can be enriched in ultracentrifuges, which Iran has been developing. However, low-enriched uranium, of the kind used to fuel nuclear power stations in USA, France, Germany, Japan etc., only requires a small percentage of U-235. The pretense of making reactor fuel is the cover for the Iranian enrichment efforts.
In the mid-1970s, a key textbook emerged on the threat of the diversion of plutonium-239 from civil nuclear power systems to make atomic bombs (known as “the safeguards problem”).
The book detailed how a mature nuclear power system, including reprocessing, may well fail to detect diversion of several bombs’ worth of plutonium owing to accounting uncertainty. Thus, the fabrication of a crude atomic bomb could be achieved by a handful of people using un-notable equipment.
This “safeguards problem” has increasingly worried independent experts that take an interest in such threat. In fact, many of these experts rank this problem as the most intractable drawback of the peaceful atom.
The main argument against this concern has been that few, if any, criminals could be such clever atomic designers as the experts.
It is all very well to mention Iran’s signing the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). To the legally-oriented mind, ratification is the more important act. But in the case of the Iran regimes during the four decades since the Islamic Revolution, it is doubtful whether any such acts are much more than deceptive gestures.
In typical brief accounts of Iran’s nuclear activities, nuclear power stations are mentioned, but nothing about whether purification of plutonium from their spent fuel is being attempted (commonly termed ‘reprocessing’). While the mass media have mentioned this, the U.S. State Department has rarely done so.
The Islamic Republic has insisted they want nuclear fission reactors only to generate electricity. But they have plenty of byproduct natural gas from their oil-fields, which could be used to generate electricity in power stations. This route to expanding electricity generation capacity would be many times cheaper, several times faster to build and far more reliable than the nuclear route.
Tandem-cycle power stations, refined over the past three decades, burn natural gas to drive a gas turbine and a steam turbine, yielding better than 50% efficient conversion of the chemical energy in the gas to electrical energy. (Even faster and cheaper to build, but less efficient in operation, are the even more mature power stations which use a simple lashed-down jumbo-jet gas turbine to drive an alternator. But if fuel is free, the inefficiency of that type of power station matters little.)
Iran’s line that it wants nuclear power stations “just for electricity” is thoroughly false and completely deceitful. From the sidelines of the U.S.-Iran negotiations during the Obama-Kerry period, one could only wonder what the U.S. government was hoping to achieve by the much-touted interactions.
President Trump’s skepticism looks far more suitable for this matter than the Obama/Kerry trustfulness.
Dr. Robert Mann, a retired academic scientist, was vice president of the New Zealand Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a leader of the 1973-80 campaign which stopped the New Zealand government nuclear power station program.