Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Iran’s commercial reactor is not the problem

Getting the government to give up its uranium enrichment program is the key issue

vver-fuel-assemblyIran started this month inserting 163 fuel assemblies into a Russian built 1000 MW VVER light water reactor located at Bushehr on Iran's Persian Gulf coast. In a few months, technicians will withdraw controls rods to start the process of operating the reactor and making electricity.

The fuel is enriched to approximately 4.6%. Russia has agreed to supply the fuel for the reactor for the next 10 years and to take it back. Many nonproliferation experts say that this arrangement ensures that the reactor will not be able to support development of nuclear weapons.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Jerusalem Post on October 26,

"The United States does not see Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor as a threat. Our problem is not with their reactor at Bushehr, our problem is with their facilities at places like Natanz and their secret facility at Qom and other places where we believe they are conducting their weapons program."

Uranium symbol The mainstream news media has made a big deal out of fuel being loaded in the reactor, but the real threat is Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Iran is enriching uranium to 20% U-235.

This has raised fears it will eventually enrich to 90% which is bomb making material, also called “highly enriched uranium,” or HEU.

Will the latest round of sanctions make a difference? Can Iran, with its fractured internal politics, negotiate and implement an agreement with the western powers? How real is it’s offer to return to negotiations Nov 10th?

Read all about it at the ANS Nuclear Cafe now online.

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Fordi said...

I'm not entirely sure why Iran's enrichment to 20% incites fear that they'll enrich to 90%. In terms of workload, they're totally different animals. It's much easier to enrich from a number away from 50% towards 50% than to enrich from 50% to anything else. In centrifugal production, such as Iran is doing, this difference is several orders of magnitude between 0.72->20% vs. 20%->90%.

So, yeah. 90% EU is not what I would be concerned about.

It seems to me that if you have 20% EU, it's a bit easier - in terms of energy versus further enrichment - to run DU slugs through a high-flux research reactor at 1-month intervals to make 239-Pu, then PUREX out the HEPu.

Correct me if I'm wrong, please.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps, but the weapons-design work and technology requirements to go from a uranium weapon to a plutonium weapon is an order of magnitude more difficult. The theory is that most clandestine weapons programs will go for more assured success and build a uranium weapon -- a theory that has not held up for any of the weapon's states to arise post 1980. The non-proliferation experts are stuck on this idea that a uranium bomb is the gateway drug on the way to a plutonium bomb. That is probably why you see the uranium discussion dominating the speculation.