Karl Grossman

Obama, the Iran Deal and Plutonium

President Barack Obama insisted at his press conference yesterday, in which he defended his nuclear deal with Iran, that with it Iran “is cut off from plutonium”—the preferred fuel for atomic bombs. Meanwhile, he has also said 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’s 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. Since the rupture of relations between the countries with the Iranian revolution of 1979, Russia has stepped in. Russia completed what is Iran’s first nuclear power plant, Bushehr I, started in 1975 by German companies that stopped work after the Iranian revolution.

Russia agreed to complete the nuclear power plant, which opened in 2011, on the condition that the “spent” fuel from it—from which plutonium for weapons could be extracted—would be sent back to Russia for “reprocessing.”

(In a nuclear power plant, 97 percent of the uranium fuel is Uranium-238 which does not fission or split. Only 3 percent 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 highly radioactive and has a half-life of 24,100 years, thus it’s radioactive for 240,000 years. Plutonium is a manmade element. Plutonium-239 was first produced in the 1940s during the World War II Manhattan Project, the crash program to make atomic bombs, as an alternative to highly-enriched uranium as a fuel in atomic weapons. The bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima was fueled with highly-enriched uranium (90 percent U-235).The bomb dropped on Nagasaki utilized Plutonium 239—as have virtually all atomic bombs since.)

The plan now is for Bushehr I to be followed by more nuclear power plants in Iran. Russia and Iran last year signed a deal under which Russia would construct two more nuclear power plants on the Bushehr site “with a possibility of six more after that,” the New York Times reported in opening its article on that deal.

In the new deal, spent fuel from the Arak nuclear reactor—believed to be a plutonium production reactor although Iran has claimed it built for research and also production of isotopes for medical and industrial use—would also be shipped out of Iran for reprocessing.

Obama insisted at yesterday’s press conference: “With this deal we cut off every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear program”—and he then corrected himself and said—“a nuclear weapons program.”

Still, even with arrangements to send out of Iran spent nuclear fuel from which Plutonium-239 could be obtained for atomic bombs, there’s the matter of the time it would take for any shipment out of Iran to happen.

The Arms Control Association in an article on the original Iran-Russia deal to ship spent fuel from Bushehr to Russia raised the “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-239 out of it and thus serve as a “pathway” to “a nuclear weapons program.” Moreover,  because, as the Lovins wrote, “a few kilograms of plutonium” is all that’s needed for a “Nagasaki-yield bomb,” the hundreds of kilograms of Plutonium-239 routinely produced each year as a byproduct in a nuclear power plant provides a large amount of material to draw from.

Obama at the press conference yesterday also placed great faith in a key U.S. negotiator of the 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 would be focused on the proliferation of atomic weaponry from “peaceful” nuclear power?

Obama at the press conference also placed great faith in the monitoring for compliance with the deal 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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