Iran’s formal notification on Monday to the IAEA that it is going to start producing 20 percent enriched uranium in order to supply its research reactor that produces medical isotopes, means that it will be taking a major stride towards producing weapons-grade fuel.
The Washington Post reports:
…enriching uranium under the guise of medical needs will get Tehran much closer to possessing weapons-grade material. Iran insists it has no interest in nuclear weapons. But Albright said 70 percent of the work toward reaching weapons-grade uranium took place when Iran enriched uranium gas to 3.5 percent. Enriching it further to the 19.75 percent needed for the reactor is an additional “15 to 20 percent of the way there.”
Once the uranium is enriched above 20 percent, it is considered highly enriched uranium. The uranium would need to be enriched further, to 60 percent and then to 90 percent, before it could be used for a weapon. “The last two steps are not that big a deal,” Albright said. They could be accomplished, he said, at a relatively small facility within months.
Jeffrey Lewis provides a more detailed explanation of why 20 percent HEU is much closer to 90 percent than 3.5 percent LEU is to 20 percent.
Nobody ever discusses why Iran might want to feed a bio-reactor with U235 enriched to 20% and why Iran wants to start producing radioactive products for medicine at all.
My opinion about why Iran wants to start producing such isotopes can only be somewhat speculative. My opinion is that it has to do with the High Flux Reactor at Petten, The Netherlands. The nuclear facilities at Petten supply at least 60% of the European demand for medical isotopes. Incidentally, the reactor continues to use highly enriched uranium targets for the production of medical isotopes. The highly enriched Iranian U235 will not be used to run the Iranian bio-reactor because that is forbidden per decree of the IAEA but targets containing 20% U235 to be neutron irradiated are allowed! I do not know how large the weights of such targets are but I would not be surprised to learn that we are talking of gram or even sub-gram masses. As long as Iran allows the IAEA to check intrusively what happens to its more highly enriched U235, cheating will be difficult.
The Petten reactor was shut down in 2002 for repair. I understand that another shutdown of uncertain duration may start soon which will deprive Europe of 60% of its radioactive medical isotopes, albeit transiently. Of course that will have a huge impact on the world market because the Europeans will start shopping elsewhere. Some experts predict the possibility of a disastrous international donnybrook after the reactor closes down.
My hypothesis is that the Iranians want to enter the world market with an eminently exportable and greatly profitable product. It may even serve as a blockade-breaker. Can you Imagine that our country will stop an Iranian vessel which has medical isotopes on board for deadly ill patients?
Yes, Mr. Lewis, 3.5×3.5 is 12.25 whereas 20×20 is 400. It is indeed that simple. However, why do you broadcast additional scary tales and completely ignore what I have written above about known facts? Why can’t you ever consider the possibility that Iran is into life saving and not into mass destruction in this case?
P.S. Some of the isotope mixtures produced at Petten are separated with the large mass spectrometer (a.k.a. “Calutron”) of the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam before transport to the ultimate users. If the Iranians have such a mass separator that would be another suggestion that they could be seriously considering the export of medical radioisotopes. Incidentally, constructing and operating a “Calutron” is much, much simpler than that of a centrifuge battery for the enrichment of U235.