Nuclear Weapons

Thinking Big on Uranium and Iran

05.12.08 | 4 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

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.