President Ahmadinejad announced Wednesday that Iran is mastering the entire nuclear fuel cycle. That mastery includes mining, processing, enriching, and fabricating fuel from uranium for a nuclear power plant such as the one at Bushehr in Iran. We are unlikely to hear about Iran’s other nuclear objective — producing a nuclear weapon which can be a payload on Iran’s Shahab-3 medium range ballistic missile.
The Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is charged with reporting on Iran’s compliance with its nuclear Safeguards Agreement to the UN Security Council. The IAEA’s latest report has information from various sources which suggests clandestine progress in Iran on the technology required for development and delivery of a nuclear weapon. The specific weapons technology includes work on explosives; enrichment; formation of spherical uranium metal; exploding bridge wire detonators; neutron sources; and re-engineering the payload chamber of the Shahab-3 missile.
To understand Iran’s nuclear program and ambitions, we need to return to 1953 which saw both the installation of Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran and the launching by President Eisenhower of the Atoms for Peace program. Under Atoms for Peace, the Shah established the Tehran Nuclear Research Center with a U.S. supplied 5 megawatt nuclear research reactor.
Iran has oil revenues, and U.S. and European companies rushed to do nuclear business with the Shah’s Iran. A Siemens led group contracted to build a $5 billion dollar nuclear power plant at Bushehr. Iran lent $1.1 billion for a 10 percent share of Eurodif, a uranium enrichment plant in France, jointly owned by France, Belgium, Spain and Sweden. Iran financed a nuclear cooperation agreement with South Africa in return for supplies of enriched uranium fuel from South Africa and Namibia.
President Gerald Ford signed a directive offering Teheran the chance to buy and operate a U.S.-built reprocessing facility for the complete ‘nuclear fuel cycle’, including extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel. The Ford strategy paper said the “introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran’s economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals.”
The Shah approved plans to construct, with U.S. help, up to 23 nuclear power plants by 2000. The Shah echoed President Ford’s theme saying, “Petroleum is a noble material, much too valuable to burn. We envision producing, as soon as possible, 23,000 megawatts of electricity using nuclear plants.”
In 1979, the overthrow of the Shah and the occupation of the U.S. embassy ended U.S. and most European cooperation with Iran’s nuclear program. German companies withdrew from the Bushehr project which was more than half complete, and for which they had received at least $2.5 billion. Eurodif did not supply Iran with any enriched uranium.
Iran’s nuclear program stalled during the Iran/Iraq War which ended in 1988. Iran then began seeking other partners for its nuclear ambitions. Russia formed a joint effort with Iran, called Persepolis, which provided Iran with nuclear experts and technology. In 1995, Iran contracted with Russia to complete the Bushehr nuclear plant. Most other potential partners were discouraged by aggressive US objections.
Iran was also a beneficiary of Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapons sharing network which included Libya and North Korea. With centrifuge technology from this network
Iran was able to build large uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow; neither was disclosed in advance to the IAEA as required by the Safeguards Agreement.
The November 2011 report to the UN Security Council by the IAEA Director General states that Iran is obligated by Security Council resolution to cooperate with the IAEA on all issues which give rise to concerns about military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. Since August 2008, the report states, Iran has not engaged with the Agency in any substantive way on this matter. The Agency is therefore unable to provide credible assurance that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.
Israel is about 900 miles from Iran. The Shahab missiles have an effective range of well over 1,000 miles.
ROLF WESTGARD is a Deerwood resident and a professional member, Geological Society of America and the American Nuclear Society. He recently taught the class “Nuclear Energy; past, present, and future” for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program.