Iran Deal Forecast No. 4: Plutonium Shuffle

This is the fourth of a series of projections based on the terms of the current Iran deal, if it is ratified by the United States.  In this scenario, we show how Iran not only retains but receives an improved plutonium road to a fusion bomb.

One of the false opinions being spread about this deal is that the proposed deal would foreclose Iran’s plutonium path to a bombThis is not true.  Iran’s ability to produce weapons’ grade plutonium is not going to be destroyed by the deal, but rather distributed and increased by the gifts from the United States and Western powers.  To show this we will consider scenario #4, in which Iran apparently follows the deal just long enough to get its new light water reactors and Russian anti-aircraft missiles.

The only way to obtain plutonium is by operating a nuclear reactor.  In the course of operating the reactor, uranium will decay into plutonium.  The plutonium can then be removed and processed for use in weapons.

Those who are celebrating the deal are focusing on the Arak heavy water reactor.  A heavy water reactor produces much more plutonium during its operation than a light water reactor.  The redesigned heavy water reactor is supposed to produce much less than the current design.  Further, Iran has in principle agreed to have all the “spent” fuel – that is, the plutonium – removed from the country.  If Iran kept its agreement, it would in fact remove the concerns around the Arak reactor.  However, Iran could elect to defy the agreement at any time by retaining its “spent” fuel.  This means it will retain a plutonium production capacity even at Arak.

However, the big deal is the light water reactors we have agreed to build for Iran as part of its “peaceful” program.  Proliferation experts prefer these reactors because they are said to be “proliferation resistant,” but that term has a specific meaning.  It does not mean that they cannot produce plutonium.  In fact, unlike heavy water reactors, they produce predominantly weapons’ grade plutonium!

The reason they are said to be ‘proliferation resistant’ is that they produce relatively less plutonium overall, and that it is necessary to shut down the reactor completely to harvest the plutonium.  That makes cheating easier to detect.  Should Iran walk away from the deal once the reactors are complete, however, detecting cheating is no longer a concern.

So the deal will create a distributed capacity to produce weapons’ grade plutonium across Iran.  It will do this at the same time that Iran is equipping itself with Russian anti-aircraft missiles.  That modern anti-air capacity combined with the distributed nature of the threat means that our potential of destroying Iran’s plutonium production capacity will be much weakened.

Finally, don’t be fooled into believing that the reactor grade plutonium that the redesigned Arak reactor will produce is safe.  Reactor grade plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons too.  The difference has to do with the percentages of different isotopes of plutonium.  An isotope occurs when an elemental atom has more or less than the usual number of neutrons bonded to it.  As most of the physical properties of an element come from the outer shell made up of electrons, and as neutrons have no electrical charge, addition or subtraction of neutrons does little to change the physical properties of the atom.  This means that it remains the same element, because it retains most of its physical properties.

With plutonium, the most important isotope is Plutonium-239.  Weapons’ grade plutonium is 97% pure Plutonium-239.  Reactor grade is less, often much less. But most of the physical qualities are the same, including the most important one for our purposes:  the ability to achieve a fusion bomb!  The difference is that reactor grade plutonium has more Plutonium-240, which emits more neutrons over time.  This means that people trying to shape it into nuclear weapons are exposed to more radiation, which increases the difficulty and expense of building a bomb. In no way does it prevent a bomb from being built.

Understanding the science involved in nuclear weapons is difficult, and it is easy to understand how people have been fooled by the claims of diplomats – the diplomats themselves may not understand the physics involved.  Be certain Iran’s nuclear scientists know how it works, however.  Give them this deal, and you are very far from foreclosing their plutonium path to a fusion bomb.  You are safeguarding and extending it.