Thinking Big on Uranium and Iran

Iran continues to enrich uranium. Enrichment is the process that makes natural uranium useable in a nuclear reactor or, if carried further, a nuclear bomb. Iran claims that the motivation for its enrichment program is entirely peaceful but almost no one outside of Iran believes this. With the United States shouting from the sidelines, the Europeans are continuing the hard diplomatic work of persuading Iran to suspend its enrichment program, with little success.

The Iranians claim that they have just as much right as anyone to enrich uranium for their civilian nuclear reactors. This is not true but it is not entirely wrong. Part of the reason for on-going sanctions is that they lied to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for years. Iran could, in theory, make amends and satisfy the IAEA and then legally enrich uranium. Any country could. Enrichment, the process of preparing uranium for a nuclear reactor or, potentially, a nuclear weapon, is today a legitimate industrial enterprise. That is a problem.

The administration looks at the situation through the lens of an Iranian threat, but the problem is long-term, global, and fundamental. It is time to make a bold proposal that will apply to the Iranians but includes everyone else, even the United States.

The United States, working with other countries that now enrich uranium, should follow through on the many proposals to internationalize the enrichment industry. Far and away the hardest part of building a bomb using enriched uranium is getting hold of that special material. The design and assembly of the bomb is easy, at least compared to the technical challenge of uranium enrichment. The key ingredient of nuclear bombs can no longer be treated as simply another industrial commodity.

Gas centrifuge plants do not normally enrich uranium enough to be useable in a bomb but exactly the same equipment that is used for fuel could be used for bombs. The difference is literally just a matter of how the machines are hooked together. Yet, IAEA inspectors are not allowed to see, photograph, and record the spaghetti of pipes at a centrifuge plant because the enrichment companies consider this information competition sensitive and proprietary. The United States has a remarkable agreement with Russia to buy bomb-grade uranium from its old dismantled nuclear weapons, dilute it, and burn it in U.S. nuclear reactors but efforts to expand the program have to take into account the effect on the financial health of the American enrichment company.

To treat uranium enrichment like any other industry is insane. True, the threat is not from U.S. and European enrichment companies but the United States and other countries interested in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons have to lead by example. Russia and China don’t provide reliable financial figures but, based on worldwide production and Western costs, the global enrichment industry is about six billion dollars a year. This is what Americans spend each year on potato chips. The American firm, United States Enrichment Corporation, has a market capitalization of about two billion dollars, that is, less than a tenth of what the United States Government spends each year on farm price supports. It would be easy for the industrial countries to buy up all existing enrichment capacity and put it under national and then international control.

Enrichment everywhere in the world would be conducted under international supervision. The plants could be owned by an international consortium and operated by it or by commercial contractors. How to build the centrifuges would remain the secret of those few countries that have currently perfected the technology but personnel operating the plants would be international. To remove any profit incentive—and excuse—the producing countries should subsidize half the cost of enriching uranium, putting the funds into the international enrichment agency. Since enrichment is just a percent or so of the cost of producing nuclear electricity, this subsidy would not distort the electricity market. Today, enriched uranium producers are its major consumers, so the subsidizing countries would recover most of the subsidy for years to come.

Nations worried about proliferation have to make the commitment that every country, not just Iran, must give up its “right” to independently enrich uranium. Any country, Iran included, that started down the path toward enrichment with such a global regime in place would unambiguously be up to no good and subject to sanctions or even attack.

Having corporate financial considerations affect non-proliferation policy is a very small tail wagging a very large and dangerous dog. We can no longer afford to treat uranium enrichment like steel, or coal, or petrochemicals. Uranium enrichment is different. It affects the safety of everyone in the world and should be under international control.

9 thoughts on “Thinking Big on Uranium and Iran

  1. The problem with countries wanting nuclear power / weapons are both due to the perceived aggression of the USA. In the case of civilian power, it is the USA having used up much of the oil resources of the world combined with US actions in Iraq and elsewhere that may be interpreted as an attempt to corner and keep the remaining world oil resources. In the case of nuclear weapons the motivation is to simply achieve protection against the USA, as the North Korean standoff with the USA demonstrates. The USA’s perceived aggressive nature is the underlying problem with nuclear.

  2. Interesting. Why can France enrich and recycle spent nuclear fuel but Iran cannot?

    Why can Pakistan and Israel have A Bombs but Iran cannot?

  3. There is no way you can keep this technology secret. Security through obscurity just doesn’t work. IT has proven that much. As already mentioned the nuclear weapons are wanted as a defensive measure not for attacking. If you have them you know that US and it’s cronies from Europe will not invade you. That’s quite a nice idea considering the west’s actions as of late (Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and so on).

    Besides nuclear weapons are hardly the best ROI around. You can a lot easier make a huge chemical bomb (also less danger for you to get nuked out of the universe afterwards) or use biological weapons who are also dead easy to use.

    Radiation is a huge scare BS from the cold war. It’s no where as dangerous as most people think (Chernobyl being the best proof of that). This does not mean that nuclear power should not be secure but knee jerk reactions are not going to fix anything. Knowledge can not be contained so the only solution is to remove the will to actually attain and use the said weapons. This unfortunately starts with the west that is ATM busy preaching double standards to the rest of the world.

  4. US is the only country in the world that used NB on civilian. US is the only country that killed million of civilian in the recent years. It’s funny that American talking about controlling of others. Just look at the history, you will find that this nation was an apartheid regime 40 years ago (many believe that you are still an apartheid regime) and you support all dictatorships in the Middle East and the worst thing is you support the worst apartheid regime in the world (Palestine occupiers). Please think about fixing your moral problems and corrupted regime instead of thinking of solving world’s problems. You are the world’s problem fix yourself.

  5. John E: NK and Iran aren’t intended as a deterrent, they are intended for use or a bargaining chip. though there has been animosity between those nations and the US, there has never been a real threat of aggression against either of these nations. nuclear brinkmanship is not the only game in town.

    beebs: Neither Pakistan or Israel (or India) has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. their actions are not endorsed by any nation engaged in the NNPT. (Israel has never officially acknowledged their possession of nukes)

    Jason: your extreme use of rhetoric has invalidated your comment.

  6. The day that countries like Iran get the bomb, is the day the world will take a turn for the worse. This will open the door to a terrorist organization getting access to one.

  7. This is an excellent example for why we should be talking to the Iran government ……as time goes on more third world countries will begin to enrich uranium and the US must deal with these countries with face to face talks.

  8. Chris:your extreme use of rhetoric has invalidated your comment.

    Anyways, Iran had lid to the IAEA for many years. But In 2001, it decided to come clean on its act, and declared all the materials it had imported from the black market.. It even went ahead and exposed the A.Q. Khan network.

    But now Iran is being told to prove negative. How can anyone disprove something that does not exist? Its all dirty politics as usual.

    But just think about it, if Israel can have Nukes, surely Iran can too. There ain’t no tolerance for double standards around here. The best option would be to to denuclearize the entire middle east.

    I believe there will be peace once Palestinians get justice based on equality. Unless israel stops acting like Palestinians are sub-humans or just plain collateral damage, there will never be peace. And nuclear weapons will continue to be pursued by many more countries.

    Heck, even Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan would develop Nukes in case there is a war with Iran. No one trusts the United States of (slanted) America anymore…

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