Category Archives: Iran uranium enrichment

2012 ~ The year that was in nuclear energy

Plus a few pointers to what’s in store for 2013

By Dan Yurman

Former NRC Chairman Gregory Jackzo

On a global scale the nuclear industry had its share of pluses and minuses in 2012. Japan’s Fukushima crisis continues to dominate any list of the top ten nuclear energy issues for the year. (See more below on Japan’s mighty mission at Fukushima.)

In the United States, while the first new nuclear reactor licenses in three decades were issued to four reactors, the regulatory agency that approved them had a management meltdown that resulted in the noisy departure of Gregory Jazcko, its presidentially appointed chairman. His erratic tenure at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cast doubt on its effectiveness and tarnished its reputation as one of the best places to work in the federal government.

Iran continues its uranium enrichment efforts

The year also started with another bang, and not the good kind, as new attacks on nuclear scientists in Iran brought death by car bombs. In July, western powers enacted new sanctions on Iran over its uranium enrichment program. Since 2011, economic sanctions have reduced Iran’s oil exports by 40 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In late November, the U.S. Senate approved a measure expanding the economic sanctions that have reduced Iran’s export earnings from oil production. Despite the renewed effort to convince Iran to stop its uranium enrichment effort, the country is pressing ahead with it. Talks between Iran and the United States and western European nations have not made any progress.

Nukes on Mars

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover is a scientific and engineering triumph.

Peaceful uses of the atom were highlighted by NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover, which executed a flawless landing on the red planet in August with a nuclear heartbeat to power its science mission. Data sent to Earth from its travels across the red planet will help determine whether or not Mars ever had conditions that would support life.

SMRs are us

The U.S. government dangled an opportunity for funding of innovative small modular reactors, e.g., with electrical power ratings of less than 300 MW. Despite vigorous competition, only one vendor, B&W, was successful in grabbing a brass ring worth up to $452 million over five years.

The firm immediately demonstrated the economic value of the government cost-sharing partnership by placing an order for long lead time components. Lehigh Heavy Forge and B&W plan to jointly participate in the fabrication and qualification of large forgings for nuclear reactor components that are intended to be used in the manufacture of B&W mPower SMRs.

Lehigh Forge at work

The Department of Energy said that it might offer a second round funding challenge, but given the federal government’s overall dire financial condition, the agency may have problems even meeting its commitments in the first round.

As of December 1, negotiations between the White House and Congress over the so-called “fiscal cliff” were deadlocked. Congress created this mess, so one would expect that they could fix it.

The Congressional Budget Office has warned that if Congress doesn’t avert the fiscal cliff, the economy might slip into recession next year and boost the unemployment rate to 9.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, compared with 7.9 percent now. Even record low natural gas prices and a boom in oil production won’t make much of a difference if there is no agreement by January 1, 2013.

Japan’s mighty mission at Fukushima

Japan’s major challenges are unprecedented for a democratically elected government. It must decontaminate and decommission the Fukushima site, home to six nuclear reactors, four of which suffered catastrophic internal and external damage from a giant tsunami and record shattering earthquake. The technical challenges of cleanup are daunting and the price tag, already in the range of tens of billions of dollars, keeps rising with a completion date now at least several decades in the future.

Map of radiation releases from Fukushima reported in April 2011

  • Japan is mobilizing a new nuclear regulatory agency that has the responsibility to say whether the rest of Japan’s nuclear fleet can be restarted safely. While the government appointed highly regarded technical specialists to lead the effort, about 400 staff came over from the old Nuclear Industry Safety Agency that was found to be deficient as a deeply compromised oversight body. The new agency will struggle to prove itself an independent and effective regulator of nuclear safety.
  •  Japan has restarted two reactors and approved continued construction work at several more that are partially complete. Local politics will weigh heavily on the outlook for each power station with the “pro” forces emphasizing jobs and tax base and the anti-nuclear factions encouraged by widespread public distrust of the government and of the nation’s nuclear utilities.
  • Despite calls for a phase out of all nuclear reactors in Japan, the country will continue to generate electric power from them for at least the next 30–40 years.
  • Like the United States, Japan has no deep geologic site for spent fuel. Unlike the United States, Japan has been attempting to build and operate a spent fuel reprocessing facility. Plagued by technical missteps and rising costs, Japan may consider offers from the United Kingdom and France to reprocess its spent fuel and with such a program relieve itself of the plutonium in it.

U.S. nuclear renaissance stops at six

The pretty picture of a favorable future for the nuclear fuel cycle in 2007 turned to hard reality in 2012.

In 2007, the combined value of more than two dozen license applications for new nuclear reactors weighed in with an estimated value of over $120 billion. By 2012, just six reactors were under construction. Few will follow soon in their footsteps due to record low prices of natural gas and the hard effects of one of the nation’s deepest and longest economic recessions.

The NRC approved licenses for two new reactors at Southern’s Vogtle site in Georgia and two more at Scana’s V.C. Summer Station in South Carolina. Both utilities chose the Westinghouse AP1000 design and will benefit from lessons learned by the vendor that is building four of them in China. In late November, Southern’s contractors, which are building the plants, said that both of the reactors would enter revenue service a year late. For its part, Southern said that it hasn’t agreed to a new schedule.

The Tennessee Valley Authority recalibrated its efforts to complete Watts Bar II, adding a three-year delay and over $2 billion in cost escalation. TVA’s board told the utility’s executives that construction work to complete Unit 1 at the Bellefonte site cannot begin until fuel is loaded in Watts Bar.

The huge increase in the supply of natural gas, resulting in record low prices for it in the United States, led Exelon Chairman John Rowe to state that it would be “inconceivable” for a nuclear utility in a deregulated state to build new reactors.

Four reactors in dire straights

In January, Southern California Edison (SCE) safety shut down two 1100-MW reactors at its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) due to excessive wear found in the nearly new steam generators at both reactors.

SCE submitted a restart plan to the NRC for Unit 2 in November. The review, according to the agency, could take months. SCE removed the fuel from Unit 3 last August, a signal that the restart of that reactor will be farther in the future owing to the greater extent of the damage to the tubes its steam generator.

The NRC said that a key cause of the damage to the tubes was a faulty computer program used by Mitsubishi, the steam generator vendor, in its design of the units. The rate of steam, pressure, and water content were key factors along with the design and placement of brackets to hold the tubes in place.

Flood waters surround Ft. Calhoun NPP June 2011

Elsewhere, in Nebraska the flood stricken Ft. Calhoun reactor owned and operated by the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD), postponed its restart to sometime in 2013.

It shut down in April 2011 for a scheduled fuel outage. Rising flood waters along the Missouri River in June damaged in the plant site though the reactor and switch yard remained dry.

The Ft. Calhoun plant must fulfill a long list of safety requirements before the NRC will let it power back up. To speed things along, OPPD hired Exelon to operate the plant. In February 2012, OPPD cancelled plans for a power uprate, also citing the multiple safety issues facing the plant.

In Florida, the newly merged Duke and Progress Energy firm wrestled with a big decision about what to do with the shutdown Crystal River reactor. Repairing the damaged containment structure could cost half again as much as an entirely new reactor. With license renewal coming up in 2016, Florida’s Public Counsel thinks that Duke will decommission the unit and replace it with a combined cycle natural gas plant. Separately, Duke Chairman Jim Rogers said that he will resign at the end of 2013.

China restarts nuclear construction

After a long reconsideration (following the Fukushima crisis) of its aggressive plans to build new nuclear reactors, China’s top level government officials agreed to allow new construction starts, but only with Gen III+ designs.

China has about two dozen Gen II reactors under construction. It will be 40–60 years before the older technology is off the grid. China also reduced its outlook for completed reactors from an estimate of 80 GWe by 2020 to about 55–60 GWe. Plans for a massive $26-billion nuclear energy IPO (initial public offering) still have not made it to the Shanghai Stock Exchange.  No reason has been made public about the delay.

India advances at Kudanlulam

India loaded fuel at Kudankulam where two Russian built 1000-MW VVER reactors are ready for revenue service. The Indian government overcame widespread political protests in its southern state of Tamil Nadu. India’s Prime Minister Singh blamed the protests on international NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

One of the key factors that helped the government overcome the political opposition is that Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited told the provincial government that it could allocate half of all the electricity generated by the plants to local rate payers. Officials in Tamil Nadu will decide who gets power. India suffered two massive electrical blackouts in 2012, the second of which stranded over 600 million people without electricity for up to a week.

Also, India said that it would proceed with construction of two 1600-MW Areva EPRs at Jaitapur on its west coast south of Mumbai and launched efforts for construction of up to 20 GWe of domestic reactors.

India’s draconian supplier liability law continues to be an effective firewall in keeping American firms out of its nuclear market.

UK has new builder at Horizon

The United Kingdom suffered a setback in its nuclear new build as two German utilities backed out of the construction of up to 6 Gwe of new reactors at two sites. Japan’s Hitachi successfully bid to take over the project. A plan for a Chinese state-owned firm to bid on the Horizon project in collaboration with Areva never materialized.

Also in the UK, General Electric pursued an encouraging dialog with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to build two of its 300-MW PRISM fast reactors to burn off surplus plutonium stocks at Sellafield. The PRISM design benefits from the technical legacy of the Integral Fast Reactor developed at Argonne West in Idaho.

You can’t make this stuff up

In July, three anti-war activitists breached multiple high-tech security barriers at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Y-12 highly enriched uranium facility in Tennessee. The elderly trio, two men on the dark side of 55 and a woman in her 80s, were equipped with ordinary wire cutters and flashlights.

Y-12 Signs state the obvious

The intruders roamed the site undetected for several hours in the darkness of the early morning and spray painted political slogans on the side of one of the buildings. They were looking for new artistic venues when a lone security guard finally stopped their travels through the plant.

The government said that the unprecedented security breach was no laughing matter, firing the guards on duty at the time and the contractor they worked for. Several civil servants “retired.” The activists, if convicted, face serious jail time.

None of the HEU stored at the site was compromised, but subsequent investigations by the Department of Energy found a lack of security awareness, broken equipment, and an unsettling version of the “it can’t happen here” attitude by the guards that initially mistook the intruders for construction workers.

The protest effort brought publicity to the activists’ cause far beyond their wildest dreams and produced the predictable uproar in Congress. The DOE’s civilian fig leaf covering the nation’s nuclear weapons program was once again in tatters.

So long Chu

Given the incident at Y-12, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who came to government from the quiet life of scientific inquiry, must have asked himself once again why he ever accepted the job in Washington in the first place.

DOE Energy Secretary Steven Chu

Chu is expected to leave Washington. That he’s lasted this long is something of a miracle since the Obama White House tried to give him the heave ho this time last year after the Solyndra loan guarantee debacle, in which charges of political influence peddling by White House aides colored a half a billion dollar default on a DOE loan by a California solar energy company.

The predictable upswing in rumors of who might be appointed to replace him oozed into energy trade press and political saloons of the nation’s capital.

Leading candidates are former members of Congress, former governors, or just  about anyone with the experience and political know how to take on the job of running one of the federal government’s biggest cabinet agencies. It’s a short list of people who really can do the job and a long list of wannabes. With shale gas and oil production on the rise, having a background in fossil fuels will likely help prospective candidates.

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Dan Yurman published the nuclear energy blog Idaho Samizdat from 2007–2012.

The code inside code; Cyber attacks against Iran

The New York Times reveals who did it

By Dan Yurman

In a massive article that took 18 months to complete, New York Times reporter David E. Sanger reveals for the first time the details about sophisticated cyberattacks on computer systems that run Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

The attacks, which have been authorized by two U.S. presidents, Bush and Obama, temporarily disabled up to 5,000 uranium centrifuges by sabotaging the software inside the Siemens programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that set the spin rate of the machines. In short, the centrifuges, which operate at over 7,000 rpm, spun themselves to pieces when malware programmed erratic changes in their performance.

According to the New York Times article, the cyber software, known as the Stuxnet work, was developed jointly by the U.S. government working through multiple agencies and their counterparts in Israel. The joint effort also had the political effect of convincing Israel that the stealthy destruction of the centrifuges via software was a preferable option to starting a Middle East war by bombing Iran’s uranium enrichment plants.

It isn’t clear how successful the cyberattacks have been as tactics. Also, the latest rounds of sanctions against Iran, which include severe reductions on oil sales to Europe, have not resulted in progress at the negotiation table between western powers and Iran.

The country continues to robustly support its nuclear program while the economy takes a dive. Fuel and food prices are rising sharply. The national airline has difficulty getting spare parts for its commercial fleet. In some ways, Iran is becoming more like North Korea where military priorities trump civilian needs.

History of Stuxnet revealed

The New York Times article reveals that Stuxnet and a predecessor worm dubbed “Flame” hid in plain sight on computers in Iran’s uranium enrichment plants because they cloaked themselves in “signatures” from Microsoft. The Siemens PLCs that were the targets of the Stuxnet work use the Windows operating system.

The cyberattack had two phases. The first program maps networks for infiltration. The second follows the maps to do the dirty work. Specifically, finding the location of PLCs on computer networks in the uranium enrichment plant was essential.

That was the job for Flame that appears to have been deployed at least five years ago. The Stuxnet attack, which was revealed in 2010, followed the roadmaps provided by Flame and caused the centrifuges to crash by disrupting the operation of the PLCs.

The U.S. effort to develop both pieces of software was undertaken in close collaboration with Israeli developers. Even more interesting is the revelation that the U.S. tested the effect of the software with replicas of the Iranian uranium centrifuges. In a classic case of application of OPSEC (operational security), the testing was divided up among U.S. Department of Energy laboratories to prevent any one of them from seeing the whole picture.

The Wall Street Journal for June 1, 2012, reported that some of the work was done at the Idaho National Laboratory that has a test center for protecting critical infrastructure, such as power substations, from cyberattacks. The newspaper reported that lab scientists identified weaknesses in the PLC’s software.

The Stuxnet software was successful and reportedly drove the Iranians crazy because they could not figure out why the centrifuges were breaking down. It reported normal operations of the centrifuge while in fact it was destroying it.

Getting the software into the underground facilities, which were not directly connected to the Internet, turned out to be surprisingly easy. The project relied on transmission of the information via thumb drives, some possibly loaded with popular music or other entertainment and carried into the plant by unsuspecting workers.

Stuxnet was supposed to remain a secret, but it got out when the thumb drives were carried to other nations. Siemens was able to document the flow of the computer virus as it attacked its PLCs installed on other machines in other countries.

Israel goes after Iran’s oil plants

The Flame virus showed up in the radar screen of cyber security experts in May 2012 after Iran said through state controlled news media that it had discovered it in computers at the nation’s oil refinery operations. It turns out, according to an Associated Press report for June 19, that Israel unilaterally used the virus to attack the oil processing plants.

While the U.S. and Israel have reportedly collaborated on the development of Flame, its use to disrupt oil refining operations appears to be a unilateral operation by Israel.

The New York Times reported May 29 that Iran’s Computer Emergency Response Team went public with its identification of the cyberattack on oil facilities. Kamran Napelian, an official with the team, said in a web site posting that Flame was designed to mine data from personal computers and that it had entered Iran’s networks through USB sticks.

“This virus copies what you enter on your keyboard; it monitors what you see on your computer screen,” Mr. Napelian wrote. That includes collecting passwords, recording sounds if the computer is connected to a microphone, scanning disks for specific files, and monitoring Skype.

“Those controlling the virus can direct it from a distance,” Mr. Napelian said. “Flame is no ordinary product. This was designed to monitor selected computers.”

Share and share alike

Like Stuxnet, the Flame virus hid in plain sight by appearing to computer firewalls as a certified Microsoft update to the Windows operating system. Cyber security experts say the sophistication of the effort is revealed by the fact that Flame and Stuxnet share some of the same computer code and that they successfully avoided detection from commercial security software.

The AP article quotes Michael V. Hayden, a former NSA director and CIA director who left office in 2009. “It is far more difficult to penetrate a network, learn about it, reside on it forever and extract information from it without being detected than it is to go in and stomp around inside the network causing damage,” he said.

The Kaspersky Lab, a Russian security firm, told AP, “We are 100 percent certain Flame and Stuxnet worked together.”

Agents of Assassination

A new book published last week by two noted Israeli journalists claims the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, was responsible for at least four deadly bombing attacks inside Iran that killed nuclear scientists. The book is Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret War by authors Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman.

In a July 8 interview with the Associated Press, the two authors said the assassinations had two objectives. The first is that they are Israel’s response to threats by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. The second is to strike fear in the hearts of Iran’s nuclear science community that anyone in a leadership role could be a target.

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Dan Yurman publishes Idaho Samizdat, a blog about nuclear energy, and is a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Café

Covert bombing kills another Iranian nuclear scientist

It is the latest in a series of deadly attacks

By Dan Yurman

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, inspects uranium enrichment centrifuges

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, inspects uranium enrichment centrifuges

An Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in Tehran on January 11 by a bomb that was magnetically attached to his car. A driver, who doubles as a body guard, was also killed in the blast.

The scientist was identified as Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, age 32, who was a departmental manager at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant.

According to media reports, a motorcycle rider and a passenger attached the bomb to the car in heavy morning commuter traffic. The attack occurred at 8:20 AM Tehran time. It is the fifth such attack in the past two years.

The attack came one day after it was reported that that Iran had launched uranium enrichment production at its underground facility at Fordow near the city of Qum. It is reported to be enriching the uranium to 20-percent U235, which is the boundary between commercial use and weapons use. Iran has been making 20-percent enriched uranium at Natanz, about 400 km south of Tehran (250 miles), since February 2010.

In a related development, the Wall Street Journal reported that two days later on January 13 that Iran agreed to allow a high-level team of International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear inspectors enter the country on January 28. The delegation will be headed by the agency’s chief weapons inspector, Herman Nackaerts.

It is not clear whether the Iranian government will let the inspectors visit is nuclear sites, underground uranium enrichment facilities, and interview officials that the United Nations agency believes may head a nuclear-weapons program.

The combination of three events occurring within a few days of each other indicates the intensity of the issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear programs.

U.S. denies involvement in blast

In Iran, government officials repeated their accusations that the United States and Israel are responsible for this and prior bombings. Top-level Iranian officials called for revenge.

The Obama administration rejected the accusation and also condemned the murder. In Israel, government officials were said to have hinted at covert campaigns against Iran, but did not say that the nation was directly involved in the most recent attack.

Pattern of prior attacks

Model of uranium hexafluoride (UF6)

The explosion in Tehran this week resembles four others, including two in 2010. It comes on the third anniversary to the day of the killing of another Iranian nuclear scientist, Massoud Ali Mohammandi, who also worked on uranium enrichment.

Several of those targeted have been high ranking officials. In a November 2010 attack, two separate car bombs killed Majid Shahriari and wounded Fereydoun Abbasi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Shahriari was a member of the nuclear engineering faculty at Shah Behesti University and did work for the Atomic Energy Organization.

Roshan, who died in the explosion this week, was described as a mid-rank manager in charge of procurement of materials and services for Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

In July 2011, Dariush Rezaeinejad was shot dead by persons unknown.  He worked at K. N. Toosi University of Technology in electrical engineering as well as the Atomic Energy Organization. These are conflicting reports about his connections to Iran’s nuclear energy programs.

The sophistication of these attacks indicates that whomever is carrying them out has an organization chart of key personnel in Iran’s nuclear programs and has tracked specific individuals in terms of where they will be on particular dates.

For instance, Roshan worked on procurement at Natanz, but was killed on his way to an office in Tehran. The attack suggests a long period of undetected intelligence gathering and surveillance of potential targets. It suggests that future bomb attacks may take place.

Other covert attacks on Iran that have delayed its nuclear programs include the Stuxnet worm, which resulted extensive mechanical failures of uranium centrifuges in 2009 and 2010. There are significant clues that point to the likelihood that Israel had involvement in the development of the Stuxnet computer worm.

A devastating explosion on November 12 at the Bid Kaneh missile R&D center killed a high ranking military official in charge of rocket development. Some analysts  have suggested that the explosion at the missile site resulted from an attack by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).  Iran has since displayed what it says is a U.S. surveillance UAV that it claims it captured after it crashed inside Iran’s borders.

Damaged Iranian missile site. Image: ISIS 11/12/2011

More information from ISIS about this image is available at its home page.

The explosion occurred shortly after Iran reported success with a test of the missile technology. It is seen as a big setback for Iran in terms of its ability to put a nuclear weapon payload on a medium range missile. A rocket with a range of 800 miles would be able to target many major cities in the Middle East.

What’s really going on?

Patrick Clawson, a national security expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the New York Times on January 11 that the covert attacks on Iran’s nuclear scientists appear to have two objectives.

First, they have a chilling effect on the nuclear workforce and they don’t provoke a nationalist reaction in Iran. A military attack from the United States or Israel would surely create one.

Second, Clawson said, “it allows Iran to climb down if it decides the cost of pursuing a nuclear weapon is too high.”

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)

Gary Sick, a specialist on Iran at Columbia University, told the newspaper, however, that he does not believe the covert campaign will be effective in stopping Iran from its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Sick said that he thinks “Iran will double down” in its efforts because it enhances their feelings of being under attack by the West.

Charles D. Ferguson of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) told Reuters on January 17 that “such acts of terrorism” are unlikely to significantly delay or deter Tehran’s nuclear work.

“The resulting climate of insecurity feeds ammunition to hardliners in Tehran demanding reprisals,” he said.

U.S. government officials declined to discuss what security measures they will be taking to detect and deter possible retaliatory attacks by Iran on U.S. nuclear scientists. The U.S. Department of Energy is the largest employer of nuclear scientists in the United States, located at dozens of facilities across the country.

In Houston, Tex., this week, Gelareh Bagherzadeh, 30, a medical student who has a long history of speaking out on human rights issues in Iran, was shot dead under mysterious circumstances. Her purse and cell phone were still in her car, which had crashed into a building near her home.

Iran is continuing its threats to block the Straights of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, adding a security premium to the price of oil. This move increases revenue for Iran and imposes costs on the U.S. economy. It is unclear whether or not Iran will actually take any military action, but even a single attack on an oil tanker could send oil prices skyrocketing.

Can Iran make a bomb?

It is also unclear whether Iran has the other capabilities to make a nuclear weapon including the metallurgy, trigger mechanisms, and delivery systems, e.g., missiles with a compact working warhead capable of hitting a specific target 800 miles away.

Diagram of a nuclear weapon using highly enriched uranium

To develop a conventional uranium-based atomic bomb, Iran would have to produce output of about 90-percent U235. Weapons experts say that if Iran wants to produce weapons grade at that level, there is little to stop them, technically speaking, from doing so.

Experts believe that Iran will eventually be able to produce enough weapons grade material to build four or five atomic bombs.  However, at this time, while Iran is enriching uranium to 20%, it isn’t clear that it has moved beyond that point to actually build a bomb.  On Jan 19 the Washington Post reported that the former head of the Israeli intelligence agency said Iran has “the resources and components” to build one.

“If the Iranians get together tonight and decide to secretly develop a bomb, then they have all the resources and components to do so,” Amos Yadlin was quoted Thursday as telling the Maariv daily.

The newspaper added that it was not clear whether Yadlin, who retired in November 2010, was referring to the mechanical elements of a bomb, or that the Iranians have weapons-grade uranium, that is, enriched to 90% U235.

Limited political options

Iran’s political objectives remain unshaken by the bombings of its nuclear scientists. Its clerical leadership is driven by a warped and paranoid world view that is bent on getting the West to recognize its role as a regional power. Unfortunately for Iran, its neighbors in the Middle East are as alarmed about Iran’s nuclear ambitions as the United States and western Europe.

There is no workable roadmap at this time to convince Iran to stop its drive to produce a weapon. Ray Takeyh, a senior analyst at the Council of Foreign Relations, wrote in the Washington Post on December 9 that one of the reasons is that Iran’s defiance of Western powers plays well in terms of domestic politics despite the activity of opposition parties. He wrote:

Ray Takeyh, CFR

“A clerical oligarchy trapped in a mind-set conditioned by conspiracies and violent xenophobia paradoxically views both American entreaties and sanctions as an affirmation of its perspective.

Offers of diplomatic dialogue made in respectful terms are seen as indications of Western weakness and embolden the regime to sustain its intransigence.

Conversely, coercive measures are viewed as American plots to not just disarm the Islamic Republic, but also to undermine its rule. Armed with the ultimate weapon, the Islamists think, they may yet compel the West to concede to Iran’s regional aggrandizement.”

While the U.N. Security Council has imposed four rounds of economic sanctions against Iran for enrichment work, its members are divided on next steps. There is general agreement that enrichment to 20 percent exceeds the country’s civilian needs, since Russia is providing the fuel for Iran’s Bushehr commercial nuclear reactor.

Finding a path to bring Iran back into predictable diplomatic relations and to stand down from its pursuit of a weapons program remains a major challenge.

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Yurman

Dan Yurman publishes Idaho Samizdat, a blog about nuclear energy and is a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Iran’s commercial reactor is not the problem

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

By Dan Yurman

Iran 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.

VVER fuel assembly - source: TVEL

The fuel is enriched to approximately 4.6 percent. 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,” Clinton said.

Mike Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (ISIS) in London told Reuters on October 26, “Fueling Bushehr should not be seen as an act of defiance.”

“Nobody has asked them to stop on Bushehr. I think it is a big mistake to equate these two issues. The fact that they haven’t responded to Catherine Ashton [the European Union diplomat] is an important nonproliferation issue, ” Fitzpatrick said.

History and development of Bushehr

Iran began building the Bushehr reactor in 1975. It was one of two planned units. Work on both units ground to a halt during the 1979 revolution. Russian picked up the pieces on one of the reactors 16 years later.

Progress at Bushehr has been delayed repeatedly by disputes between Iran’s mercurial and fragmented government and Russia’s industrial export engine that runs on hard currency. At one point, work stopped when Iran made a progress payment in euros and the Russians demanded dollars.

The VVER reactor is a conventional light water design widely used in Russia and eastern Europe. The Energy Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Energy notes that the Russian Federation continues to build VVER units. The VVER reactor is not the same design as the one that was destroyed at Chernobyl. The Russians have a huge image problem that any Russian-built unit may inherit from the disaster at Chernobyl-4, an RBMK water-cooled graphite-moderated reactor. The Russians are not building any more RBMKs, although several remain in service.

The new VVER units conform to international standards and have developed an export market. The new VVER design has an estimated operational life of at least 30 years. Russia is building one for India with plans for several more, and it recently inked a deal to build two for Vietnam.

Reactor’s success undermines Iran’s need for enrichment services

Ivan Oelrich, (right) a Senior Fellow for the Strategic Security Program at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), talked on October 26 with this blog about the Bushehr reactor. His primary point is that the plant will not take Iran any closer to building a nuclear weapon.

Ivan Oelrich

“In fact, it may help stop an Iranian bomb and establish good practices for the rest of the Middle East,” he said.

“The Russian guarantee of reliable fuel services actually undermines Iran’s claim it needs its uranium enrichment plants. The fact that the Russians will take back the spent fuel, under IAEA inspections to prevent diversions, makes it impossible to extract the plutonium from the fuel,” Oelrich said.

It is not an additional danger, Oelrich said. “The Russians are in effect leasing the fuel. Once the fuel is back in Russia, it’s their problem, not Iran’s.”

Oelrich said he is “cautiously optimistic that Iran will agree to talks in Europe about its uranium enrichment program.

“Iran will want to re-engage with the European Union. The sanctions are impacting the regime a lot worse than they expected.”

His confidence was well placed. On October 29, the New York Times reported that Iran said it is ready to return to talks about its uranium enrichment program. Analysts point to the deep impacts of the fourth round of sanctions on the nation’s oil and gas industry.

There’s another point, and it goes to the reasons that Iran started its uranium enrichment work in the first place. Oelrich says that Iran isn’t getting the political benefits it expected from the enrichment program. Instead of being seen as a prestigious leader in the Middle East, the regime has become a destabilizing pariah. Internally, shortages of specialty items for the oil fields and difficulties with banking and trade have undermined the regime’s justification for the program.

Oelrich says that a real blow to Iran’s view of their ability to withstand the sanctions was China’s vote for them in the U.N. Security Council last June. These sanctions impact Iran’s banking system, air cargo, and shipping industries that stop the flow of critical equipment for the country’s oil and gas industries.

Since China is a major customer, and is also the country closest to Iran in the U.N. Security Council, Iran may have felt confident about how it would vote. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in Shanghai the day China voted in New York for the new round of sanctions. The vote in the U.N. was a wakeup call for him and the Iranian government.

The scope of Iran’s enrichment program

Uranium enrichment centrifuges

Iran has been enriching its uranium at Natanz to 20 percent, but what alarms the U.S., Israel, and other countries is the route from 20 percent to 90 percent high enriched uranium (HEU) to make a bomb. Iran claims it is enriching to 20 percent to support a medical isotope reactor.

In May 2010, the IAEA said that Iran now has enough enriched uranium to make two atomic bombs. The U.N. Security Council sees Iran’s duplicitous communications with the IAEA as evidence that it is engaged in building a bomb. According to the New York Times on May 31, 2010:

“‘The toughly worded report says that Iran has expanded work at one of its nuclear sites. It also describes, step by step, how inspectors have been denied access to a series of facilities, and how Iran has refused to answer inspectors’ questions on a variety of activities, including what the agency called the ‘possible existence’ of ‘activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.’”

Oelrich says that having 20 percent uranium is one thing, but having 90 percent HEU is entirely another. He thinks that Iran doesn’t have enough 90 percent HEU to make even one bomb, much less two, and that it lacks other types of bomb-making know-how.

An underground test is out of the question, as one would be readily detected and would create an entirely different crisis for Iran in its relationship with the rest of the world. As for Iran’s missile program, Oelrich says that his assessment is that Iran is a long way from being able to package a bomb for use on an intermediate range ballistic missile.

What does the West want from Iran?

European Union negotiations will be influenced by Iran's complex trade relationships

Regardless of how much bomb material Iran has, a new agreement may be difficult to achieve. According to an October 27 report in the New York Times, a new agreement would require Iran to send an increase of about two-thirds from the amount required under a tentative deal offered in Vienna a year ago.

Iran stalled on implementation and then walked away. The reason for the increase is that Iran has been making more enriched uranium since it broke off talks a year ago. Even as Iran rejected that deal, it continued its uranium enrichment program.

The Wall Street Journal reported on October 27 that the IAEA now estimates that Iran has an inventory of 2800 kilograms (6200 lbs), compared with a stockpile of 1800 kilograms (4000 lbs) in September 2009. The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. diplomats want to expand the original fuel-swap deal to remove more of the enriched uranium.

Instead of 1200 kilograms discussed last year, Iran would need to agree to secure at least 50 percent more, or 1800 kilograms, at another country such as Turkey. Nuclear experts say that this would keep Iran’s inventory below the level that could sustain development of a working bomb. Iran would not be able to retrieve the uranium without IAEA consent.

The Times also reported that the Obama administration will demand that Iran halt all production of nuclear fuel that it is currently enriching to 20 percent. That would cut off the path to HEU, which at 90 percent U-235 is bomb material.

Can Iran cut a deal?

Iran's political climate is a mosaic of factions

It isn’t clear that Iran has the political will to make such an agreement. The country lacks a cohesive leadership structure complicated by theocratic politics. There is dissent among conservatives and domestic opposition that has been brutally suppressed by the Revolutionary Guards since the June 2009 elections.

Iran’s hard liners might again stop an agreement and tough it out. The lack of a united front at home, however, may be seen as an opportunity by some Iranian leaders as a rationale to stop enrichment, which would lift the sanctions.

The U.S. and the European Union have to convince Iran that the sanctions will put more of a dent in the nation’s economic life and that things could get a lot worse. By the time you read this blog post, the ground may shift again. The agenda for the negotiations, which are set to start on November 10, hasn’t been set, and Iran has already sent conflicting messages about what it is willing to put on the table.

Will Iran change or will it be more of the same?

Iran may yet twist, turn, and delay the negotiations in an attempt to delay an agreement.

The fourth round of sanctions have hit hard. However, China’s vote for them was a signature change in the political landscape further isolating the Iranian regime on a global scale. Still, it remains unclear whether Iran will respond in a rational manner.

So far signals from Iran do not bear out western optimism.  Reuters reported November 2 Iran’s envoy to the U.N. nuclear agency scoffed at a U.S. position that Tehran would have to agree to tougher conditions than those it rejected last summer.

“I’m afraid there is no logic for these kind of statements,” Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh told Reuters when asked about a U.S. media report that Iran would be required to part with some two metric tons of its uranium stockpile under a revised proposal.

The Los Angeles Times reported that a highly placed European Union diplomat says Iran is unlikely to come to terms over its nuclear program.

Since the imposition of the latest sanctions, over the summer, “the whole question has been, ‘Is that going to create a new political situation?’” the diplomat told a group of reporters. “We haven’t seen anything yet.”

Future posts on this blog will attempt to follow the negotiations and seek to answer the “so what” questions that emerge from the blizzard of news media reports.

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Dan Yurman is the publisher of Idaho Samizdat, a blog on nuclear energy. He is a contributing reporter for Fuel Cycle Week and a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.