Politics & Policy

The Iran Deal: An Omission We Still Can Fix

Bushehr reactor in 2010. (IIPA via Getty)
The P5+1 negotiators largely ignored a very important aspect.

In our eagerness to clamp down on Iran’s uranium-enrichment and potential plutonium-production activities relating to its small heavy-water reactor, both those in favor and those opposed to the Iran deal have glossed over what prompted our worries in the first place: the possibility of military diversions from the light-water power reactor (LWR) at Bushehr.

If we want to close the door on possible nuclear Irans elsewhere, we’d be wise to turn our attention to the proliferation risks such power reactors pose. The good news is that what might help most in addressing these risks — remote automated surveillance that can be updated 24/7 — is something the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has already secured at Natanz and many of the other nuclear sites it inspects around the globe. The problem is that we haven’t yet insisted on such surveillance at Bushehr and apparently are not inclined to do so.

It’s difficult to understand why.

Originally, in the early 1990s, Iran’s power-reactor project was a key focus of international concern. The administrations of Bill Clinton and both the Bushes initially did all they could to prevent its completion, not only because it was serving as a cover for other nuclear-weapons-related activities (e.g., uranium enrichment, the transfer of weapon design information, and heavy-water-reactor technology and hardware), but also because the reactor itself was seen as a potential source of nuclear-weapons-explosive plutonium. When it became clear, however, that Bushehr was likely to be completed and that any hope of securing Russian assistance in limiting Iran’s uranium-enrichment and heavy-water-reactor projects turned on grandfathering Bushehr, top Bush officials decided in 2007 to make the concession. After this, what was done at Bushehr was treated as an intrinsically “peaceful” activity. Even the politicians and governments most suspicious of Iran and critical of the Iran deal — George W. Bush, the French, and Benjamin Netanyahu — now accept the legitimacy of Iran’s present and future “peaceful” power reactors. Because such critics of the deal did not demand that there be additional surveillance of Bushehr, those focused on closing the deal didn’t ask. After all, LWRs were deemed to be unambiguously “peaceful.”

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However, if you look at what an operator can do with an LWR — of which there are hundreds in the world — this is not quite true. Whereas in its original design the small Arak reactor, on which the P5+1 negotiators spent a great deal of time, could have produced enough plutonium for a bomb or two a year, the Bushehr power reactor, largely ignored, can produce enough plutonium for several dozen warheads a year.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, representing the nuclear-power industry, insists that such commercially produced plutonium “poses little risk of proliferation.” The underlying claim is that because most of it has been irradiated for about five years, it is so heavily contaminated with unwanted plutonium isotopes that it isn’t going to work as a nuclear explosive. That isn’t, however, what the weapons experts at our national labs say. They have long insisted that such “reactor-grade” plutonium is nuclear explosive material from which a weapon of any yield can be devised.

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But we don’t have to pick sides in this controversy to be convinced that there is a danger. An LWR is refueled every 12 to 24 months, at which point about a third of the fuel, the oldest third, is removed and replaced with fresh uranium fuel. So at any given time every LWR power plant has one-third lightly irradiated fuel, one-third more irradiated, and one-third heavily irradiated. There is little question that the lightly irradiated third contains plutonium that would be very useful for bombs. Thus, a country with a number of LWRs always has in their cores an arsenal’s worth of plutonium.

Beyond this, a country that wanted nuclear weapons could refuel on a shorter cycle of every ten months to get even purer plutonium-239. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration seriously considered buying and completing an unfinished LWR power plant in the State of Washington to use as a plutonium production reactor for nuclear weapons.

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Of course, to extract the plutonium from the irradiated LWR fuel, you have to have a chemical reprocessing plant. Iran does not have such a plant. But this lack did not eliminate concern about the little Arak reactor. The P5+1 negotiators insisted on redesign of the reactor itself to essentially eliminate the physical possibility of plutonium production. They were obviously worried about possible clandestine reprocessing. But if you contemplate that possibility, you have to worry about the very much larger amount of plutonium in irradiated LWR fuel at a larger reactor like the one at Bushehr.

#share#Three years ago, Iran emptied all of the fuel from Bushehr after only a few months of operation. The Wall Street Journal reported that the spent fuel it emptied had enough weapon-grade plutonium to make as many as 24 weapons. The Iranians had complained to the United Nations that the U.S. flew drones around Bushehr on at least seven separate occasions shortly after the fuel had been emptied. The unstated concern was that Iran might move the plutonium-laden spent fuel to a hidden plant to strip the plutonium out. This suggests that clandestine reprocessing plants for LWR fuel are a serious possibility.

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In fact, they are. In a widely circulated 1977 memorandum intended to make this precise point, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory reprocessing experts supplied the design of such a small reprocessing plant (including waste storage), complete with flow sheets and equipment lists. The memorandum stated that the plant could be built mainly using off-the-shelf equipment, perhaps even scavenged from a winery or a dairy. Oak Ridge estimated it would take four to six months from start of construction to production of the first plutonium metal, and that the plant could produce five kilograms of plutonium — a bomb’s worth — per day after that. There would be no identifying external releases until the plant was operating.

It would probably take expert chemical engineers to make this work, but that is not much consolation. Bottom line: The LWR is “proliferation resistant,” as it is often described, only if one can absolutely rule out reprocessing, including clandestine reprocessing. That is not necessarily easy to do (recall that in the 1960s U.S. Atomic Energy Commission scientists visited the Dimona plant in Israel looking for signs of reprocessing and missed the plant when it was literally under their feet).

#related#What should be done? At a minimum, we need to keep constant track of these reactors’ spent fuel. That means installing round-the-clock monitoring of fuel handling at all LWRs to make sure all fuel movements are immediately recorded. The IAEA has already asked for and received authority to conduct such remote monitoring, known as near-real-time surveillance, at more than one-third of the nuclear sites it inspects globally. The P5+1 got Iran to agree to allow such surveillance over its declared enrichment activities.

It is a modest burden on nuclear power to maintain a decent margin of proliferation protection that is altogether warranted, especially in the light of the last four decades of proliferation. Certainly, if one is going to encourage increasing the commitment to nuclear power globally, it is irresponsible to do so without having the IAEA insist on the minimal proliferation protection that such surveillance authority would help ensure. Indeed, if we are truly serious abut nonproliferation, we should ask the IAEA to insist on it not only for Bushehr, but for power reactors worldwide.

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