The devil's in Iran's nuclear details
By Julien Mercille
The latest chapter in the Iranian nuclear crisis revolves around a possible
"nuclear fuel swap" through which Iran would send most of its low-enriched
uranium stocks (LEU at 3.5%) abroad, possibly to Russia and France, which would
further enrich it (making it LEU at 19.5%) and then turn it into fuel rods. The
fuel rods would be sent to Iran, which could use them in the Tehran Research
Reactor (TRR) to produce much needed medical isotopes. The problem for Iran at
the moment is that the TRR was last refueled in 1993 by Argentina, but it will
soon run out of fuel (perhaps in a few months).
The swap deal could be a win-win for both Iran and the West. The West should be
pleased by the removal of a good portion of enriched uranium from Iranian soil
since this will reduce the possibility that Tehran could decide to use it to
weapons (nuclear weapons require highly enriched uranium, HEU at 90%). For
Iran, fuel for its TRR would allow it to keep producing important isotopes used
in the medical field and on which hundreds of thousands of Iranian cancer
However, there has been some confusion among experts on whether Iran is currently
producing its own medical isotopes, or is it only importing them from other
countries? It is important to clarify this issue since the ways in which the
latest crisis can be resolved depend in part on what exactly Iran is doing.
Flynt and Hillary Leverett, well known analysts of Iran, wrote recently that
Iran was not producing any medical isotopes domestically and that it imported
all of its requirements. So did Geoffrey Forden writing at Jeffrey Lewis' blog.
But others say that Iran is now producing isotopes, although they don't give
When asked about the issue an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
representative said the agency is not commenting ''at this time".
So what's the situation?
Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, was asked about Iran's
activities in the field of medical isotopes production and his statements
cross-checked by reviewing a March 2010 article by Iranian scientists from the
Atomic Energy Organization of Iran in the journal Nuclear Technology, published
in the United States by the American Nuclear Society . The two accounts
appear to match, and are as follows.
Iran now produces two important medical isotopes with the TRR: technetium-99
and iodine-131. Since recent media stories have emphasized production of
technetium-99, this is worthy of focus.
Technetium-99 is obtained from molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), perhaps the most
important medical isotope in the world. Four countries - Canada, Belgium, South
Africa and the Netherlands - meet 95% of the world's Mo-99 demand, using highly
enriched uranium (HEU at 90%) to produce it.
Up until 2007, Iran bought its Mo-99 on the world market, but it has now
developed a way to produce it domestically, through irradiating Mo-98 in the
TRR. This leads to the production of Mo-99, which is then used to produce
technetium-99. Apparently Iran does not currently import Mo-99.
As an aside, Iran is also producing other medical isotopes, notably isotopes of
thallium and gallium, at its cyclotron facility near Tehran. This production
process does not involve uranium, however, so it is not part of the current
nuclear "crisis" with the West.
The problem today is that Iran's TRR is running out of fuel (which is made of
LEU at 19.5%) and the production of isotopes is therefore at risk. The way to
solve this problem is at the origin of the current crisis.
Several solutions are possible for Iran:
1. Buy the fuel for the TRR on the world market.
2. Receive fuel in exchange for most of its LEU stocks (this is the swap deal).
3. Enrich its own LEU to 19.5% (currently it is only enriching at 3.5%) and
produce the TRR fuel domestically.
4. Stop producing its own isotopes and buy them on the world market (it would
therefore not need fuel for the TRR to produce isotopes).
Any one of those solutions, if implemented, would provide Iran with medical
isotopes and ensure its patients receive appropriate care, and therefore, solve
the crisis. But they all have some problems, either real, or related to
1. Buying fuel on the market: Iran has actually said this would
be its preferred solution, since it would allow it to keep its own LEU, rather
than exchanging it for the fuel under a swap deal. As a member of the NPT
(nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), Iran does have the right to purchase the
fuel on the open market. However, as Scott Ritter has noted, "The United States
and Europe have held any such sale hostage to Iran's agreeing to suspend its
indigenous uranium enrichment program." Since Iran also has the right to enrich
uranium according to the NPT, the obstacle here appears to lie in Western
capitals, and this explains why they have preferred a swap deal in which Iran
would give up its stocks of LEU.
2. Swap deal: From Iran's perspective, one problem here is that
by sending most of its LEU stocks to Russia and France, Tehran runs the risk of
never receiving the fuel, or, at least, this would give Russia and the West an
important bargaining chip in future negotiations. One can easily conceive how
the West, in possession of Iran's stocks, could lay out conditions for Iran to
receive the fuel, such as asking for a full suspension of uranium in Iran.
There are historical reasons for Tehran to be worried: in the 1970s, under the
US-allied shah, Iran invested more than $1 billion in Eurodif, a consortium
enriching uranium in France. This was supposed to give Iran the right to obtain
part of the fuel produced by the consortium. However, the 1979 Iranian
revolution led France to renege, and Paris has since then refused to deliver
Iran's share of the fuel or to reimburse it with interest. The fact that
nuclear hardliner Nicolas Sarkozy is now in power only adds to Iran's fears
that France could break the deal.
Partly because of such concerns, Tehran proposed that the swap should take
place on Iranian soil and the LEU would leave Iran only when the fuel was
delivered. As Siddharth Varadarajan put it, this would look something like
At a certain date, when French fabrication of the TRR fuel starts, the IAEA
could take into its custody an equivalent amount of Iranian LEU and hold it, in
escrow, inside Iran. When the TRR fuel is ready, the Iranian LEU could be
loaded onto a plane, which would take off once the French fuel lands inside
Iran. At the end of the day, the outcome for the US from a simultaneous swap
would be the same as from a sequential swap: Iranian LEU stocks would have been
But US President Barack Obama, instead of jumping on the opportunity to close
the deal, said he was disappointed with Iran, and called for sanctions - for a
3. Iran enriches LEU at 19.5%: In February 2010, Iran announced
that it would enrich its own uranium up to 19.5% in order to make the fuel rods
itself. One question mark here is whether Iran has the technical expertise for
doing so. It could always reconfigure its centrifuges to produce 19.5% instead
of 3.5% uranium, but Tehran has never before attempted to produce fuel rods out
of enriched uranium.
Another potential problem is that Iran's enrichment process is plagued by the
fact that its domestic uranium is contaminated with molybdenum and this makes
enrichment more difficult (the molybdenum here is a separate issue from the
medical isotopes of molybdenum). Further, the prospect of Iran enriching its
uranium to an even higher level does not please the West.
4. Importing isotopes: Iran's announcement that it would attempt
to reach the near 20% enrichment level led US officials to accuse Tehran of
threatening the lives of its patients, since, if Iran was more reasonable, it
would simply buy the isotopes on the world market and that would settle the
crisis. For instance, Glyn Davies, the US ambassador to the IAEA, asked: "Why
is Tehran gambling with the health and lives of 850,000 Iranian cancer patients
in pursuit of ever more dangerous nuclear technology," a move he said was
"callous and chilling".
Davies said that "to address the humanitarian needs of Iran's people, we are
prepared to facilitate Iran's procurement of medical isotopes from
third-country sources", maintaining that the American proposal was a "faster,
cheaper, and more responsible alternative than enriching to 20%".
But one problem with importing isotopes is that world supply in the future may
not be as reliable as it once was; and even if it remains reliable, Iran could
still prefer to be self-sufficient and produce its own isotopes. Is the US
right to say that it would be more responsible not to enrich uranium to 20%?
One could certainly argue the case - but there is a stronger argument that it
would be more responsible for states that have nuclear weapons to eliminate
them, their obligation under the NPT, and convince Israel to eliminate its own
nukes and join the NPT. That would certainly contribute to defusing the crisis.
The latest chapter in the Iranian nuclear dossier can be solved in more than
one way. Although technicalities are important, we should nevertheless not
forget that there would be no crisis if Western governments, and primarily the
United States, had not created it in the first place.
1. Ghannadi Maragheh et al., "Industrial-scale production of 99mTc generators
for clinical use based on zirconium molybdate gel", Nuclear Technology Vol.
169, March 2010. See also Davarpanah et al., "Influence of drying conditions of
zirconium molybdate gel on performance of 99mTc gel generator", Applied
Radiation and Isotopes Vol. 67, 2009.
Julien Mercille is lecturer at University College Dublin, Ireland. He
specializes in US foreign policy and geopolitics. He can be reached at email@example.com.