December 6, 2004
Here we go againBy Douglas Hanson
The specific arrangements of Iran's on again—off again agreement with France, Britain, and Germany (European—3) on development of its fledgling nuclear program are so deceptive that it would be laughable, if it didn't have anything to do with potentially the deaths of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. Even the CIA, which is normally reticent when it comes to publicizing threats (except when it concerns leaking information detrimental to the President and SecDef), has recently embarked on a 'document dump' to certain journalists about nuclear programs in both Iran and North Korea .
Caroline Glick has the most sobering assessment in her column of November 20th, where she notes that Iran's agreement with the E—3 effectively ends all diplomatic options to force Iran to obey the provisions of the Non—proliferation Treaty (NPT). The agreement states that the E—3 will provide 'light water reactor fuel' in exchange for Iran complying with all of the restrictions of the agreement, including a 'European push' to allow Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Glick explains the reasons for her pessimism:
...that light water reactor fuel of the type that the Europeans have agreed to give Iran can be used to produce bomb material within nine weeks. Since the IAEA inspectors only visit Iran every three months, it would be a simple matter to divert enough light water fuel to produce a bomb between inspections. And so, the agreement itself holds the promise of direct European assistance to Iran's nuclear weapons program.
If all of this is confusing in a technical sense, then it's probably designed to be that way, and not helped much by major press reporters, muddying the waters on where exactly the E—3 and Iran are going with all this business. Simply put, Glick is correct in her assertion that the opportunity for a diplomatic solution has passed, since the ever—changing nuclear agreements only reflect the same historical pattern Iraq used to start its own nuclear weapon development program almost 30 years ago. A comparison of the two programs shows a striking similarity, especially in the area of E—3 and UN collusion to allow rogue dictators the means to manufacture fuel for nuclear weapons.
In 1975 Saddam Hussein clinched a business deal with none other than Jacques Chirac to provide a French—built reactor at the Al—Tuwaitha nuclear research site just southeast of Baghdad. Dubbed 'Osirak' by the French, but known as Tammuz 1 by the Iraqi scientists, this reactor was never designed to generate commercial power despite assertions to the contrary. Nor was it to provide the basic research for construction of a commercial power reactor. The most common type of reactor to generate electrical power for public consumption is a Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR). Osirak was euphemistically dubbed a Materials Test Reactor (MTR), and was rated at 40MWth (megawatt—thermal).
All types of reactors produce plutonium as part of the atomic reaction in the core, but some types are more efficient than others. Both Osirak and the Russian reactor down the road at Tuwaitha were not pressurized reactors, in that they simply had the fuel elements in a reactor pool. This design is much better suited for clandestine production of plutonium. To efficiently 'breed' plutonium from a reaction of enriched uranium requires the ability to frequently rearrange the configuration of the fuel elements or to change them out completely. To do this with a PWR it is necessary to shut down and de—pressurize the reactor; something that is easier to monitor on the ground and from overhead imagery. Saddam's reactors did not have this requirement as they were not pressurized, and the fuel elements could be readily reconfigured or replaced quickly.
Interestingly, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) views a 25MWth reactor as being the absolute upper limit allowable, enabling a country to produce a weapons—usable quantity of plutonium in one year. Certainly, at 40MWth, Osirak was anything but a 'research' reactor, and since the Russian reactor suffered from near—continuous technical problems, Osirak was the obvious primary target of Israeli fighter—bombers during Operation Opera in 1981. Once Osirak was knocked out, it forced Saddam's scientists to abandon the breeding of plutonium, and required them instead to develop means to enrich uranium in order to fuel their bombs.
France had given them tons of yellowcake and low—enriched uranium (LEU) to get their 'research' program off the ground. Generally, reactors use uranium enriched to 20 percent, but modern nuclear weapons need about a 93 percent enriched fuel. However, if scientists increase the amount of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in the bomb, a lower level of enrichment can still produce a detonation. The 'Little Boy' bomb dropped on Hiroshima was enriched to only 80 percent, yet achieved a yield of 15 kilotons (KT) . So even if the highest level of enrichment was not achieved, Iraq had plenty of raw materials to make up the difference.
Why Iraq was allowed to retain all of this material by the UN during the post—Gulf War I sanctions era has been exposed by the Oil—for—Food scam investigations, including the final report from Charles Duelfer and the ISG on Iraq's WMD. To sum up: The UN and certain European nations placed the civilized world at risk and deliberately subverted the Coalition's efforts in Operation Iraqi Freedom to achieve a return on long—term investments in Iraq. This is no less a factor in the current crises with Iran's nuclear program.
Glick's article notes that under the current agreement with Iran, the E—3 will provide 'light water reactor fuel' and 'more nuclear reactors.' Most contemporary accounts focus on the Iranian reactor at Bushehr that would use this fuel, but they do not examine the history behind this facility, that in this case involves not France, but rather Germany and Russia.
Germany initially began construction of two 1,200—1,300 megawatt PWRs near Bushehr in 1974, which involved 2100 German workers and about 7000 Iranian workers. This program was halted after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, and lay dormant for years. Then in January 1995, Russia and Iran signed an $800 million contract whereby Russia would build one 'light water reactor," that is, a PWR, at Bushehr in the range of 1000MWth. The facility would be similar to a reactor at the Russian Balakovskaya plant at Balakovo, Saratov. Notably, this project uses the original structures designed for the German 1,200—1,300 MW reactors, but requires an enlargement of the existing reactor building.
Critics of the US opposition to the E—3 and Iran agreement emphasize that the reactor at Bushehr is a true PWR capable of power generation for commercial purposes, and since it requires shut down and de—pressurization to remove the spent fuel rods (composed of plutonium), it is easy to monitor and control. The agreement also calls for the spent fuel rods to be shipped back to Russia for reprocessing to keep the plutonium out of the hands of Iranian weapons scientists. But as Glick notes, the IAEA will visit Iran only once every three months, and while this is better than the once—per—year inspections that Saddam had to contend with, we cannot realistically expect any more strict application of UN standards than we did with Iraq's nuclear program.
Further, some scientists point out that the plutonium produced in a conventional PWR is of the wrong isotope for use in a bomb, but this misses the point. Once plutonium is made, it is a matter of chemical extraction of the desired weapons grade isotope (plutonium—239) from the spent fuel rods, and a chemical extraction is relatively much easier than enriching uranium. Regardless, thanks to the E—3, Iran will be given both fuel options. They will receive low—enriched uranium, 2000 tons of processed yellowcake, and technical training. Keep in mind that Iraq was found to have over 500 tons of yellowcake and nearly two tons of LEU at Tuwaitha after OIF.
Even if Bushehr operates according to the agreement, this doesn't mean the civilized world is out of the woods. Iran is in the final stages of designing a 40MWth heavy water nuclear reactor at Arak for 'research' purposes, that is, an Iranian version of Iraq's Osirak. Construction has started and is scheduled for completion by 2009, and would have the potential to produce eight to 10 kilograms of plutonium per year. The US atomic bomb 'Fat Man' that was dropped on Nagasaki had six kilograms of plutonium and had a yield of 21 to 23 KT.
We are witnessing a rerun of a familiar pattern. Cash—strapped socialist governments and a corrupt UN are trying to recoup funds spent on decades—old projects that were started during a vastly different geo—political reality. In the past, this type of under—the—table wheeling and dealing may have been viewed as an acceptable risk in a Cold War paradigm that provided the necessary checks and balances.
But no more. The Islamo—fascists have made clear their objective of total annihilation of Western civilization. Apparently, the nations of the E—3, including Great Britain, are now the mullahs' willing accomplices, simply for the lure of making a few billion Euros while attempting to regain their status as players on the world stage, weakening America's status as the only "hyper—power."
As the saying goes: with friends like these, who needs enemies?
Douglas Hanson is our military affairs correspondent