The Washington Post today featured an interesting article detailing many of the difficulties and setbacks encountered by Iran’s enrichment program, post-Stuxnet. In part what it illustrates is the technical difficulty of actually attempting to engineer a proliferation attempt, even given access to facilities and technical know-how.
Iran has been plagued by problems, owing chiefly due to the fact that separating isotopes which vary only slightly in atomic weight (U-235 versus U-238) is an extremely challenging process from a technical perspective. Centrifuges accomplish this task by spinning tubes of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a green gel which becomes an extremely corrosive gas when heated; the heavier U-238 is pushed further outward down the tube, allowing for the lighter U-235 to be “skimmed” off. This process must be repeated hundreds of times (i.e., through “cascades” of connected centrifuges) in order to separate out useful quantities of U-235. Centrifuges must be precision-engineered and capable of spinning at incredible speeds – hundreds of meters per second, and capable of tolerating extreme mechanical stress. As the above article points out, this is not an easy task, especially with aging equipment and sub-standard materials.
A key take-away lesson here should be that even with the backing of a sovereign state and scientists with the technical know-how, proliferation is not easy. (Given enough time and resources, it is clearly not impossible – but both of these factors tend to be the chief constraints of any proliferation attempt.)
One issue in the reporter’s choice of language jumps out, however:
Although Iran continues to stockpile enriched uranium in defiance of U.N. resolutions, two new reports portray the country’s nuclear program as riddled with problems as scientists struggle to keep older equipment working.
Here’s the thing – the problem is not Iran enriching uranium per se. So-called “enriched” uranium can be anywhere from 1-99% U-235, the “fissile” species of uranium which exists in only trace quantities (less than a percent) in nature. Yet only uranium which has been enriched to high levels of U-235 – at least 20% (classified as “highly enriched uranium” or HEU), and generally for weapons on the order of 90% – is considered actually suitable for a weapon. Most civilian reactors use uranium enriched between 2-6% (“low enriched uranium” – LEU) – itself useless for a uranium-based explosive device.
Nowhere in the article is it stated whether Iran has actually produced HEU; to date, no evidence has been presented that they in fact have gone up to this level. Does this mean that I am naive enough to believe Iran has only benevolent intentions with their program? Of course not. But it’s also incredibly sloppy journalism to imply that uranium enrichment on its own is a nefarious project; enrichment to low levels is a mundane part of the civilian fuel cycle. Much like any technology, enrichment can be used for good or evil; but the simple act of uranium enrichment on its own does not itself constitute a grave situation. Incidentally, a similar form of collective panic takes hold with particular concern trolls (who shall remain nameless) any time a new enrichment technology – such as laser-based enrichment (e.g., SILEX) is introduced.
This leads into the broader question which is often posed as a challenge to nuclear energy: are civilian programs used as a cover for weapons applications? Fundamentally, a point my colleague Alan raised which remains true is that weapons are a consequence of a regime that decides to pursue weapons. There are numerous historical examples of regimes which have either developed only an anemic civilian nuclear power capacity and weapons (e.g., Pakistan, Israel) or none at all (North Korea). In other words, the decision to proliferate does not seem to historically spring from the development of a civilian fuel cycle – in fact, research by my former adviser Dr. Man-Sung Yim shows that increasing development of total civilian nuclear power capacity has a negative correlation with historical decisions to proliferate. There are several possible explanations for such a phenomenon, but chief among them may be the fact that countries which begin to enjoy the benefits of civilian power programs do not wish to see these economic benefits jeopardized by proliferation decisions.
To emphasize: none of this implies that we should not have reasonable safeguards against proliferation, such as measures the IAEA undertakes with host states and operators, such as inventory tracking and regular inspections of facilities. But it does call into question the larger logic of non-proliferation as objection to nuclear energy systems at large. Assuming that civilian programs are used as a cover for military applications – as is suspected in the case of Iran, for example – what exactly should this imply? One must ask – do opponents of nuclear energy demand that countries who have shown neither the propensity nor desire to proliferate also forfeit their ambitions for nuclear energy programs as a token symbolic gesture?
As history has shown, even assuming such programs are used as a “fig leaf” for proliferation activities, civilian programs are neither necessary to proliferation nor are they even necessarily promoters of such (in fact, the opposite claim can be supported). Can civilian fuel cycles be co-opted for military use? Yes, of course – the same enrichment facility used to produce LEU for fuel can easily be repurposed to produce HEU for weapons. Yet in this sense, civilian nuclear energy systems are no more a “promoter” of proliferation any more than automobile manufacturers are a “promoter” of vehicular homocide. The argument simply doesn’t hold up.