The past few weeks have seen some pretty interesting developments in a realm not many people usually think too much about, but one that affects all of us: nuclear weapons, and the control of their proliferation.
Specifically, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) learned that Iran had been building a covert uranium enrichment facility near Qom. Regardless of what President Ahmadinejad and others have said, it is absolutely unambiguous that Iran violated its IAEA safeguards by building such a facility; I described these violations quite clearly here. Not to put too fine a point on it, as the Director General of the IAEA, Mohammed ElBaradei said, they broke the law:
"Iran has been on the wrong side of the law in so far as to inform the agency at an earlier date," ElBaradei told CNN's sister station in India, CNN-IBN. "Iran was supposed to inform us on the day it was decided to construct the facility. They have not done that."
So, it was with this new and rather interesting information in hand that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (United States, China, Russia, France, and the UK) plus Germany sat down with Iranian officials in Geneva on October 1, 2009.
What came out of that meeting was an agreement that has the potential to really make a difference, if all parties involved do what they say they will do.
The Tehran Nuclear Research Center includes the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), a small light-water reactor that produces radioisotopes for medical use.
According to the US State Department background briefing on the Geneva talks:
... we discussed the question of the Tehran research reactor. And maybe a little background would be helpful. This is a research reactor which has been in operation in Tehran for decades, producing medical isotopes under strict IAEA safeguards. The last supply of fuel for this reactor, which is at roughly 19.75 percent LEU [low-enriched uranium], was supplied by the Argentine government in the early 1990s and it’s going to run out in roughly the next year, year and a half.
Iran came to the IAEA a few months ago with the request to replace this supply. The IAEA consulted us and some others, some other members, and to make a long story short the United States and Russia joined together in a proposal to the IAEA which the IAEA subsequently conveyed as a response to the Iranians, to use Iran’s own LEU stockpile as the basis, as the feedstock for the reactor fuel that’s required.
The plan involves taking the LEU (which is enriched to about 3.5%), sending it to Russia to be enriched to 19.75%, then fabricating it into fuel assemblies to be used in the reactor, which is under IAEA safeguards. The Russians have confirmed they will do the enrichment; the French will fabricate the fuel assemblies.
Under the proposal, approximately 75% of Iran's LEU would be removed, which is approximately 1,200 kg. It would be out of the country for a year or so before it would be ready for use in the TRR.
The obvious benefit is that the LEU could no longer be enriched to the point that it could be used to make nuclear weapons, making it far more difficult to achieve nuclear breakout, even with the relatively small amount of LEU that would be left in the country (click here for breakout calculation scenarios, courtesy of the Federation of American Scientists).
Greg Thielmann is a Senior Fellow with the Arms Control Association, and has extensive experience in the area of threat assessment, nuclear proliferation, and other such issues. I asked him what he thought; he told me:
It seems to me that this is an astounding development. For one thing, what I'm really thinking about is the effect on kind of worst-case assumptions about Iranian breakout capabilities, and this arrangement -- and obviously, it only happens when it happens -- the outline of this arrangement would seem to inherently push back worst-case time lines here, because you're taking the various ingredients away that a lot of those worst-case scenarios depend on in order to arrive at their bad outcome.
The larger picture, at least according to the State Department brief, is "confidence-building":
So again, at least in our view, the research reactor proposal made by the IAEA would be a positive interim step to help build confidence so that we’d have more diplomatic space to pursue Iran’s compliance with its obligations under the Security Council Resolutions, the NPT and the IAEA, and to tackle the more fundamental question of Iran’s nuclear program.
By all accounts, Iran has agreed "in principle" to the proposal, and the details will be hammered out in Vienna on October 19, 2009 (and probably discussed during ElBaradei's Tehran visit this weekend).
I asked Thielmann if he thought the Iranians would follow through with their end of the agreement, or if they might back out. I argued that since they were basically backed into a corner going into this meeting, they might have agreed simply to relieve the pressure. He said:
They clearly were under a lot of pressure here, and when they're less behind the eight ball, then there may be opportunities to delay or change the terms and so forth, so I remind myself of that and try not to get to optimistic about that, but you know, some of these things are a little bit hard to get out of. I mean, they've said some unequivocal things, they have Mohammad ElBaradei coming to Tehran to work out the details -- it looks to me that a lot of this is the real deal.
The arrangement with Russia seems like something the Iranians are not going to want to completely let fall through the cracks, particularly since it seems like this is actually taking care of an impending problem that they had. They actually do produce medical isotopes at this research reactor, and it is running out of fuel, so this is not just hanging out there, it's actually giving something to Iran that they want, so I don't think that they would just necessarily see this as being totally a favor to the international community.
Another question I had was whether the light-water reactor itself was a proliferation risk, especially since that reactor was associated with small-scale plutonium isolation experiments. I asked Jacqueline Shire of the Institute for Science and International Security about this. She replied:
Yes - fuel rods are relatively proliferation-proof, especially if they have not been in the reactor for long (plutonium builds up with operation). North Korea took out the fuel rods and reprocessed for the plutonium but their reactor was graphite-moderated - so [there was] lots of plutonium.
Working with fuel rods is messy stuff - they also have to cool for a time before they can be chemically dissolved and the fuel extracted. Also the TRR runs on relatively small quantities of fuel - so in all, with safeguards, not a significant proliferation risk.
I don't think the Pu experiments are cause for concern... they were very lab-scale.
Geoffrey Forden has posted an excellent primer on Iran's TRR plans over at Arms Control Wonk; I recommend that you read it. In his post, he also emphasizes that any amount of plutonium produced would be in such tiny amounts as to not be a cause for concern.
As I mentioned above, Iranian officials will meet with US, French, and Russian officials in Vienna on October 19 to discuss details of the TRR deal.
Also, ElBaradei's trip to Tehran this weekend has resulted in setting a date for IAEA inspection of the enrichment facility near Qom. The inspections will take place on October 25 of this year, which is has been criticized by some experts as not being soon enough.
However, ElBaradei feels that "... we are shifting gears from confrontation into transparency and cooperation," which is a view also shared by US National Security Adviser Jim Jones. He thinks that the TRR deal, as well as setting a date for a Qom inspection indicates:
We now have an Iran that is willing to come to the table. We have two more meetings scheduled, one in which they will announce the -- they will allow the inspectors to visit the Qom site which has just been recently announced and the other one to discuss methodology by which we can ship flow and rich uranium out of the country.
Those two things alone move the dial in our direction favorably. And the issue of proliferation is one that really keeps us up at night and should keep us up at night whether it's North Korea or Iran and on both fronts, we're seeing some positive movement in the positive direction.
As Greg Thielmann told me, the operative term for him was "cautiously optimistic". That's probably a pretty good assessment at this point.
Finally, I'd like to leave you with a quote from President Obama regarding the outcome of the Geneva meeting. He's looking at the big picture:
This is a constructive beginning, but hard work lies ahead. We’ve entered a phase of intensive international negotiations. And talk is no substitute for action. Pledges of cooperation must be fulfilled. We have made it clear that we will do our part to engage the Iranian government on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect, but our patience is not unlimited.
This is not about singling out Iran... This is about the global non-proliferation regime, and Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, just as all nations have it -- but with that right, comes responsibilities.
The burden of meeting these responsibilities lies with the Iranian government, and they are now the ones that need to make that choice.
It is no small thing to have the power of the atom in your hands. There are international laws by which each nation that is party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty must abide, and Iran is no exception.
: Please click here for a background piece on Iran's nuclear program.