|IRAN'S NUCLEAR ASPIRATIONS
PART 2: Two-track weapons program
By Charles Recknagel
1: Circumstantial evidence)
PRAGUE - One of the "dual-use" activities often exploited by nations who are
seeking to acquire nuclear weapons is the enrichment of uranium. Enriched
uranium can be used for nuclear fuel or - at high levels of enrichment - for
The other method is the production of plutonium, a material that can be used in
medical research or - again - for nuclear weapons.
Earlier last month, US Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated Washington's
concerns over how Tehran intends to use this technology. "We have to be nervous
when a nation such as Iran continues to take action that, at least suggests to
us, that it continues to be interested in a nuclear weapons program," Powell
Iranian officials said Tehran will not give up its right under international
treaties to produce its own reactor fuel, but said they have no interest in
nuclear weapons. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami put Tehran's position this
way in late October: "We are ready for complete cooperation and [to reach an]
understanding with the world and also with the [International Atomic Energy
Agency, or IAEA] to make sure that Iran's [nuclear] activities do not move
toward nuclear weapons."
Shannon Kile, an expert in nonproliferation issues at the Stockholm
International Peace Research Institute in Sweden, noted that although Iran
maintains that its programs are entirely aimed at civilian nuclear energy and
research, there are aspects of each that are highly troubling to experts
because they appear to go well beyond normal civilian activities.
"Well, Iran basically has two uranium-enrichment facilities that we know
about," Kile said. "They are both located at Natanz, which is south of Tehran.
One is a very small-scale facility, holding about 1,000 centrifuge cascades.
The other one is a much larger facility, holding up to 50,000 centrifuges. And
what is striking about it is that it is built deep underground with heavily
reinforced walls and roofs, which would indicate that, a) The Iranians are
interested in hiding it, and b) They are concerned about the possibility of
military strikes against it."
Tehran did not declare the existence of these facilities to United Nations arms
inspectors - as required under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - until the
sites were exposed by an exile Iranian opposition group in 2002. Follow-up UN
inspections of the facilities raised serious questions about whether they were
being used to enrich uranium to levels above that needed for nuclear fuel.
"There are some specific activities that are troubling," Kile said. "The
International Atomic Energy Agency has detected the presence of high-enriched
uranium on some of the centrifuge components that they have examined. Now, they
do accept that it is possible that some of that contamination has come, in
part, from a third-country supplier, which would most likely be Pakistan. But
it is difficult to accept that all of it has come from a third-country
supplier. And that means that Iran might have enriched uranium. And it is
difficult to know why it would enrich [uranium] to that level if it were going
to simply use it for a nuclear fuel program."
The UN nuclear agency's inspectors found traces of uranium enriched to 20% -
far higher than the usual 2% to 3% enrichment level required for nuclear fuel.
Kile said many nuclear experts believe that unless Iran commits to abandoning
its uranium-enrichment activities, it could acquire enough weapons-grade
material for a bomb by 2007 or 2008.
However, he said it remains uncertain whether Iran is seeking to produce a bomb
immediately or is merely trying to perfect a technical capacity for future
production. That would permit Tehran to "break out" as a nuclear power any time
in the future, should it feel the need.
As for the second route to making a nuclear weapon, Iran has a program to
produce plutonium that centers around a heavy-water nuclear reactor to be built
near the central city of Arak. The project - which was again not declared to
arms inspectors until it was exposed in 2002 - is described by Tehran as an
effort to produce isotopes for medical use.
But Iran's plans worry many nuclear experts because it is building what is
commonly known as a "breeder reactor". Such reactors are efficient at quickly
producing significant amounts of plutonium, particularly for military use.
Kile said the "breeder" design exceeds normal specifications for reactors
generating plutonium for civilian uses. "The 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor at
Arak is ideally suited for producing weapons-grade plutonium," Kile said. "And,
in fact, this is the type of reactor that was used by all of the [original]
nuclear weapons states [the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China]
in the early years of their nuclear programs."
Construction of the reactor is just now getting under way, and it will be eight
to 10 years before it becomes operational.
Kile said there is ample precedent for countries successfully using both
uranium enrichment and plutonium production as clandestine routes to nuclear
weapons. He noted that Pakistan is believed to have derived a bomb using
uranium enrichment, while India and Israel are thought to have taken the
The five "nuclear-weapons nations" recognized under the NPT - the US, Russia,
Britain, France and China - have used both technologies to produce their
TOMORROW: Tension defused for now
Copyright (c) 2005, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201
Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC 20036
All material on this website is
copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook
Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua
Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110
Asian Sex Gazette Middle East Sex News