A team of Obama administration officials, joined by officials from France and Russia, will begin negotiating in Vienna on Monday with Iranian diplomats over terms of an unusual deal that could remove a significant amount of Tehran’s low-enriched uranium from the country.
The administration views the deal — which would convert the uranium into fuel for a research reactor used for medical purposes — as a test of Iranian intentions in the international impasse over the nation’s nuclear program. The reactor is running short of fuel, according to Iran, and so the administration proposed that 80 percent of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile be sent to Russia for conversion into reactor fuel. France would then fashion the material into metal plates, composed of a uranium-aluminum alloy, used by this reactor.
U.S. officials argue that if Iran fails to follow through on a tentative agreement on this deal, then it will help strength the case for sanctions. But the negotiations already have highlighted splits between the United States and two of the key players — Russia and China — in the effort to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. [continued…]
Since you’re probably not a regular reader of the trade publication Nucleonics Week, let me summarize an article that appeared in its Oct. 8 issue. It reported that Iran’s supply of low-enriched uranium — the potential feedstock for nuclear bombs — appears to have certain “impurities” that “could cause centrifuges to fail” if the Iranians try to boost it to weapons grade.
Now that’s interesting. The seeming breakthrough in negotiations on Oct. 1 in Geneva — where Iran agreed to send most of its estimated 1,500 kilograms of low-enriched uranium abroad for further enrichment — may not have been exactly what it appeared. Iran may have had no alternative but to seek foreign help in enrichment because its own centrifuges wouldn’t work. [continued…]
As discussed previously, the Iranians can still enrich to any level they want, but if a certain level of impurities remains in the product, that makes the process more laborious. The product would have to be hauled back to the UCF [Uranium Conversion Facility] for further purification after partial enrichment, then returned for further enrichment, and so on. That really does put a kink in rapid breakout scenarios.
On the other hand, compared to the technical hurdles that the Iranians have already overcome, perfecting purification at the UCF doesn’t seem like a great challenge, and we should expect the AEOI [Atomic Energy Organization of Iran] to solve that one sooner or later, if they haven’t already.
One other point is worth considering, too. If the Iranians were to build a parallel fuel cycle, they’d probably be smart enough to collocate the parallel UCF with the parallel enrichment facility, which would make it a lot easier to do backing-and-forthing if necessary. Certainly, it will be interesting to learn what turns up at Qom during the inspections later this month, although we’re unlikely to learn before the next Board of Governors meeting, scheduled for late November. [continued…]
Iran’s expanding nuclear program poses one of the Obama administration’s most vexing foreign policy challenges. Fortunately, the conditions for containing Tehran’s efforts may be better today than they have been in years. The recent disclosure of a secret nuclear facility in Iran has led to an apparent agreement to allow in U.N. weapons inspectors and to ship some uranium out of the country, and the United States and Europe seem to be closing ranks on the need for sanctions and engagement.
Of course, the matter is far from resolved; Russia and China are sending mixed signals on their position, while even a weakened Iranian regime remains duplicitous. But the prospects for developing a strategy with a solid chance of success improve if we dispose of five persistent myths about Iran’s nuclear program: [continued…]