Monday, March 7, 2011

Iran and nuclear weapons: technical difficulties or principled opposition?



The FrontPage Magazine has published a report by Ryan Mauro (the founder of WorldThreats.com) , entitled “ Iran Scrounges For Uranium”, in which he advances the claim that Iran is in dire need of raw uranium for its nuclear program. He also claims that the reason that Iran has not decided to convert its existing stockpile of low-enriched uranium to nuclear weapons is that the existing fuel contains impurities which can damage centrifuges if enriched beyond a certain level. Quoting David Igniatus’s October 2009 article in Washington Post, Mauro writes “The contaminated fuel it has produced so far would be all but useless for nuclear weapons. To make enough fuel for a bomb, Iran might have to start over—this time avoiding the impurities”.

In his October 2009 article, Igniatus had quoted another journalist claiming that "If Iran's uranium feedstock must be decontaminated before it is re-enriched . . . that would suggest that the breakout scenario in Iran does not pose a near-term threat," and that "That is because re-enrichment by Iran of the LEU processed at Natanz without decontamination could destroy centrifuges used for this purpose". In the same piece, Igniatus had interpreted Iran’s offer to exchange the bulk of its LEU stockpile for ready 20-percent-level enriched fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor in light of this alleged deficiency which makes Iran’s existing LEU unsuitable for further enrichment.

However, later developments proved that the reports of the Western mainstream media on the contamination of Iran’s LEU stockpile were not well-founded. Iran’s successful further enrichment of portions of its LEU stockpile to 20 percent level fuel in February 2010 showed that it faced no technical obstacles in enriching its LEU stockpile to higher levels. Under paragraph 15 of its latest report, issued on Feb 25, 2011, the IAEA has also acknowledged that “ a total of approximately 43.6 kg of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235” have been produced since the process began in February 2010.

The latest IAEA report also recognizes that the total amount of uranium produced at the Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) in Esfahan since March 2004 remains 371 tonnes in the form of UF6, all of which remain subject to the Agency’s surveillance. According to this report, only a small fraction of the existing UF6 stockpile has been transferred for enrichment to Natanz Uranium Enrichment Factory. Given the current level of its UF6 stockpile as well as its existing scale and rate of enrichment, Iran will have enough feedstock for its uranium enrichment facilities for many years to come. To this one should also add the growing uranium mining operations on several locations inside Iran which can provide additional raw uranium for further processing for Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities.

All in all and contrary to what Mauro and other journalists affiliated with the mainstream Western media have claimed, the fact that Iran has not embarked upon further enriching its existing LEU stockpile to weapons-grade level fuel is not due to technical problems or shortage of raw uranium but plausibly because of its principled opposition to the idea of developing nuclear bombs. No matter how implausible they may sound, Western mainstream media seem to be invariably inclined toward views supporting their skeptical outlook to Iran’s nuclear program.

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