Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Analysis: The Nuclear Fuel Deal with I.R. Iran

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The Institute for National Security Studies

The emerging nuclear fuel deal between the US, Russia, France and Iran - whether it is actually implemented or not - is shaping up as another point Iran has scored to fend off international efforts that would end its uranium enrichment activities. Although this agreement would deplete the Iranian's stocks of low enriched uranium (LEU), it would also provide them with fresh nuclear fuel for its nuclear research reactor. Moreover, Iran has made it absolutely clear that it has no intention of giving up either its present capabilities or its nuclear activities in Natanz, Arak and any other facility it may have in return for this deal. The facts are these: the Teheran Nuclear Research Center contains a small, aging nuclear research reactor, fueled by 20 percent enriched uranium. This reactor is used for nuclear research, particularly the production of isotopes for medical and industrial uses. Yet despite being under IAEA safeguards, the reactor has also been used in the past for weapons-related research - the production of minute quantities of plutonium. The fuel for this reactor is running low, and Iran has been at a loss how to procure a fresh supply, doubting whether anyone would agree to resupply it in light of the ongoing nuclear crisis. Several months ago Iran turned to the IAEA for help. Advised of this situation, the US drafted and then discussed the contours of a deal with Russia, France and Iran prior to the P5+1 meeting that convened on October 1 in Geneva. From the perspective of the P5+1, the express purpose of the meeting was to bring about the suspension of all uranium enrichment activities in Iran, to be followed by a solution to the broader issue of nuclear weapons development.

During the meeting, however, the idea of Iran devoting a portion of its LEU to produce fuel for its reactor was discussed: namely, enriching Iran's existing LEU to 20% in Russia, and then producing the specialized fuel rods for the reactor in France. By doing so, Iran's stocks of LEU would be depleted by an estimated 75%. This would reduce the available stocks to much less than is needed for the production of one nuclear explosive device. The plan was greeted with great enthusiasm by the parties at the discussions, and in the follow-up meetings in Vienna all efforts were devoted to drawing up a draft agreement that was then submitted to the concerned governments for approval. Although not all details of the proposal are public, if Iran continues its uranium enrichment activities (as it avows it will), it would be able to replenish its LEU stocks in less than a year. Iran would be able to achieve the quantity needed for the further enrichment to make one nuclear warhead within far less than that time, since it will have accumulated more than that quantity before the amount needed for the reactor fuel is actually shipped out (this would reportedly occur in mid-January 2010). What then is the US trying to achieve with this deal? The deal will obviously not in itself stop Iran's nuclear program, and it even implicitly legitimizes Iran's uranium enrichment activities, because the subject of the deal is uranium that was enriched by Iran in direct violation of five UN Security Council resolutions. Moreover, the deal was not conceived as part of a grand US strategy for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, but was rather the outgrowth of the specific Iranian request to the IAEA for more fuel for the Teheran reactor. (Read more...)