Iran Deal, “Hot Cells” and Plutonium

The focus on Iran developing atomic bombs has mainly been on the thousands of centrifuges it has which it could use to produce highly enriched uranium for bomb fuel. But as likely a source of atomic bomb fuel would be the plutonium that could be separated out of “spent” fuel from nuclear power plants — and in 2011 Iran’s first nuclear plant opened, completed by Russia. Moreover, last year Russia signed an agreement to build two more nuclear power plants in Iran “with a possibility of six more after that,” The New York Times reported.

Although enriched uranium was the fuel used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, plutonium was the fuel in the atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki — and virtually all atomic bombs ever since have used plutonium, not enriched uranium.

Gathering plutonium for atomic bombs from spent fuel from a nuclear power plant can be accomplished  by having a “hot cell” —  very common, indeed ubiquitous machine used in nuclear technology — and separating out the plutonium chemically with it.

Hot cells are shielded nuclear radiation chambers. They’re used to protect technicians inspecting nuclear fuel rods from a nuclear plant or processing medical isotopes. But they have long been a concern when it comes to the proliferation of nuclear weapons because of their potential use to carry out the chemical steps of extracting plutonium from reactor fuel.

When I was an anchor of the nightly news at the then Long Island, New York commercial TV channel, WSNL-TV 35 years ago, anchorpeople from all over the U.S. were invited to a three-day symposium on nuclear weapons proliferation held at the Kennedy School at Harvard University. The object was for us to know the facts behind the proliferation issue if and when we needed to report on what could be the terrible outcome of it. The hot cell was a major item discussed. It remains a major proliferation concern.

Russia agreed to complete Iran’s first nuclear power plant, Bushehr I, opened in 2011, on the condition that the spent fuel from it would be sent back to Russia for “reprocessing” and thus, seemingly, the threat of plutonium being extracted from the fuel in Iran would be dealt with. But even with this, there’s the matter of the time it would take for any shipment out of Iran to happen.

As the Arms Control Association in an article on the Iran-Russia arrangement on spent fuel from Bushehr 1 to Russia pointed out, there’s a “question” of “how long it will need to remain in cooling pools located in Iran before being sent to Russia.” It cited “a Russian official’s estimate” that “the fuel needs two years to cool. However, other Russian officials have told their U.S. counterparts that the fuel must stay in Iran between three and five years, a Department of State official told Arms Control Today.”

Having spent nuclear fuel remain in Iran for years could provide plenty of time to separate some of the plutonium out of it. With up to nine nuclear power plants in Iran, Iran would have plenty of spent fuel to use for this purpose.

This underlines weakness of President Barack Obama’s claim at his press conference on July 15, at which he defended his nuclear deal with Iran and maintained that with it Iran “is cut off from plutonium.”

Obama, meanwhile, has held that it is OK for Iran to have a “peaceful” nuclear power program. As he stated in his Cairo speech in 2009, “any nation — including Iran — should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power.”

This ignores a central issue about nuclear technology: there is no “peaceful nuclear power.” Nuclear weapons and nuclear power are two sides of the same coin.

As physicist Amory Lovins and attorney L. Hunter Lovins wrote in their seminal book, Energy/War: Breaking the Nuclear Link: “All nuclear fission technologies both use and produce fissionable materials that are or can be concentrated. Unavoidably latent in those technologies, therefore, is a potential for nuclear violence and coercion which may be exploited by governments, factions…Little strategic material is needed to make a weapon of mass destruction. A Nagasaki-yield bomb can be made from a few kilograms of plutonium, a piece the size of a tennis ball.”

“A large power reactor,” they noted, “annually produces…hundreds of kilograms of plutonium.” Civilian nuclear power technology, they concluded, provides the way to make nuclear weapons, furnishing the material and the trained personnel.

Indeed, that’s how India got The Bomb in 1974. Canada supplied a nuclear reactor to be used for “peaceful purposes” and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission trained Indian engineers. And lo and behold, India had nuclear weapons.

As the late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau emphasized: “Human society is too diverse, national passion too strong, human aggressiveness too deep-seated for the peaceful and warlike atom to stay divorced for long. We cannot embrace one while abhorring the other; we must learn, if we want to live at all, to live without both.”

It was the U.S. with its “Atoms for Peace” program in the 1950s that encouraged Iran to develop nuclear power. After the rupture of relations between the countries with the Iranian revolution of 1979, Russia stepped in, completing Bushehr I.

More details on how plutonium, a manmade element, is created in a nuclear power plant: 97 percent of the uranium fuel in a nuclear power plant is Uranium-238 which does not fission or split. Only 3 percent of the uranium is Uranium-235, which does fission or split, and it is from this reaction that comes the heat used to boil water, turn a turbine and generate electricity. However, much of the Uranium-238 will, in proximity to fission, absorb a neutron and change to another element, Plutonium-239. Plutonium-239 is extremely radioactive and has a half-life of 24,100 years, so it’s radioactive for 240,000 years. It was first produced during the World War II Manhattan Project as an alternative fuel for atomic bombs to uranium, the supply of which was considered limited. Plutonium-239 became the preferred bomb fuel for atomic bombs and plutonium is also used as the “trigger” in hydrogen bombs.

In Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, spent fuel from the Arak heavy-water nuclear reactor — believed to be a plutonium production reactor although Iran has claimed it was built for atomic research and also production of isotopes for medical and industrial use — would also be shipped out of Iran for reprocessing. But how long will Arak’s radioactively-hot fuel rods remain in Iran before they can be shipped out?

Obama at his press conference placed great faith in a key U.S. negotiator of his Iran nuclear deal, Ernest Moniz, who he appointed secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy in 2013. He described Moniz at the press conference as a “nuclear expert from MIT.”

Moniz is also a great booster of nuclear power. In a 2011 essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, titled “Why We Still Need Nuclear Power,” he wrote: “In the years following the major accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, nuclear power fell out of favor, and some countries applied the brakes to their nuclear programs. In the last decade, however, it began experiencing something of a renaissance.”  He went on that “the movement lost momentum” with the Fukushima nuclear power disaster in Japan earlier that year with it causing “widespread public doubts about the safety of nuclear power to resurface. Germany announced an accelerated shutdown of its nuclear reactors, with broad public support.”

But, Moniz insisted: “It would be a mistake…to let Fukushima cause governments to abandon nuclear power and its benefits…Nuclear power’s track record of providing clean and reliable electricity compares favorably with other energy sources.” He added that “the public needs to be convinced that nuclear power is safe.”

With Moniz, a nuclear power cheerleader, integral at the negotiation table, how much concern was there, in putting together the nuclear deal, on the proliferation of atomic weaponry from “peaceful” nuclear power?

Obama at the press conference also placed great faith in the monitoring of its compliance by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The establishment of that agency was a direct result of the U.S. “Atoms for Peace” effort. President Dwight Eisenhower’s in speech declaring “Atoms for Peace” made at the UN in 1953 proposed an international agency to promote civilian atomic energy and, at the same time, to control the use of nuclear material — a dual role paralleling that of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. But in 1974, the AEC was abolished after the U.S. Congress concluded its two roles were a conflict of interest.

Still, the IAEA, set up in the AEC’s image and riddled with the same conflict of interest, continues to operate. With its stated mission “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy,” it unabashedly promotes nuclear power — at the same time trying to police that same power.

Admiral Hyman Rickover, “father” of the U.S. nuclear navy and in charge of construction of America’s first nuclear power plant, Shippingport in Pennsylvania, opened in 1957, saw the light regarding nuclear power decades later — and voiced his completely changed position.

In a “farewell address” in 1982, to a committee of the U.S. Congress, Rickover bluntly declared that the world must “outlaw nuclear reactors.”

He said it had been “impossible to have any life on earth: that is, there was so much radiation on earth you couldn’t have any life — fish or anything. Gradually, about 2 billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet and probably in the entire system reduced and made it possible for some for some form of life to begin.”

“Now,” he continued, “when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible.… Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has life, in some cases for billions of years, and I think there the human race is going to wreck itself, and it’s far more important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it.”

As for atomic weaponry, Rickover said the “lesson of history” is that nations in war “will use whatever weaponry they have.”

About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for 45 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up,” the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and the author of six books.
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