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Why does Iran want enriched uranium?

Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, has reaffirmed that his government would remain adamantly opposed to a moratorium on uranium enrichment, even if the UN Security Council were to pass a new resolution to that effect – analysis by Alexander Koldobsky.

Tehran insists it has a legal right to develop civilian nuclear technologies. It has declared more than once that it could itself provide fuel for the nuclear power plant which Russia is helping it to build in Bushehr. To begin with, supply of any fuel other than Russian would be a glaring violation of the contract, and Russia would never agree to it. But let’s see whether these official declarations are matched by Iran’s technical and economic potential, and how they fit in into the standards established in modern nuclear energy production.

Will Iran manage to produce fuel for the Bushehr-type nuclear plants without outside help?

Nuclear fuel for energy reactors is often erroneously identified with low-enriched (up to 5%) uranium. This is what the Natanz facilities are producing. But nuclear fuel is not like wood in a fireplace or coal in a furnace - it rests on very sophisticated technologies. The backbone of nuclear fuel is the fuel rod - a leak-proof tube filled with fissile material (low-enriched uranium dioxide pellets). Fuel rods are grouped in fuel assemblies and loaded into the reactor. The nuclear fuel core of the Russian VVER-1000 (1,000 megawatt water-water energy reactor) contains 151 fuel assemblies, each consisting of 317 fuel rods.

Operation of a nuclear reactor sets very rigid requirements on the “nuclear fuel’s” design. Fuel rods’ cladding should remain absolutely leak-proof in high temperatures and powerful radiation fields. To prevent cladding leakage, fuel pellets should be immune to radiation swelling. To withstand high-temperature corrosion, the cladding should be made of materials based on quite sophisticated technologies. These are only some of the requirements. Fuel rods and assemblies are strictly individual and depend on each nuclear reactor core’s design - their substitution is absolutely prohibited. Moreover, fuel for nuclear reactors should be produced commercially, not in labs. A single load of the VVER-1000 reactor requires about 70 tons of fuel (in terms of uranium). Clearly, Iran does not have such specialized and high-tech production capacities, and is not likely to have them in the near future. Its “nuclear experience” is too small, and its technological, industrial and manpower potential is not mature enough to build national nuclear plant projects. For the time being, its nuclear energy industry is limited to the incomplete Bushehr site; but even when the plant is finished, it will be Russia that supplies it with fuel and takes the waste back.

The political repercussions of the Iranian nuclear program will not allow the country to build another nuclear plant with foreign help. Tehran insists on uranium enrichment although it defies technological logic and economic expediency. The experience of other countries shows that a nation can launch nuclear fuel production only if it has at least 10 to 12 powerful energy units. If it has such a capacity and decides to produce nuclear fuel, it should also cover all the costs involved in the utilization of spent (irradiated) nuclear fuel. This is why 445 operating energy units in 31 countries receive fuel from just a few major suppliers, including Russia. They possess the adequate industrial capacity, technologies and guarantee nuclear and radiation safety.

The world markets of nuclear fuel and nuclear plant construction are part and parcel of modern technological relations. By and large, it would be enough for Iran to give up the idea of commercial uranium enrichment in order to get access to these markets. But Tehran does not want to do this.

Is Iran so obstinate because it wants to have its own nuclear weapons?

Regrettably, this is not impossible, although we would like to hope that the Iranian leadership realizes that such a goal is harmful politically and pointless militarily. It would take Iran at best seven to eight years to develop nuclear arms, but the world is not likely to let Iran take its time if it shows it wants to go nuclear. (RIA Novosti)

Alexander Koldobsky is a nuclear physicist.

(The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti or BBJ)