Iran’s Uranium Stockpile Is Not a Nuclear Proliferation Risk
Fear-mongering about Iran's civilian nuclear activities is not supported by the facts.
That Iran has no nuclear weapons is increasingly irrelevant to the media coverage of their civilian nuclear program and the international nuclear deal. So many writers have made careers off of being wrong in proclaiming Iranian guilt that they see everything as vindication, and then furiously rattle off a series of articles not only announcing wrongdoing, but using one another as confirmation.
This month, that takes the form of the Free Beacon’s “Iran Caught Stockpiling Enriched Uranium Needed for Bomb.” The article takes an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium and declares them 3.5 months from a nuclear weapon. They’re wrong, but when has that ever stopped them before?
Today I’d like to explain why they’re wrong, using something most Iran articles seldom even brush up against: fact and reality. Looking at the Free Beacon article, we find three things that are very wrong surrounded by all of the usual mistakes. Two of these are superficial but worth mentioning, while the third, the 3.5 months figure, will require some deeper analysis (yes, there will be math).
The headline alone, “Iran caught stockpiling enriched uranium needed for bomb,” is wildly misleading for two reasons. The first is that nobody “caught” Iran. The stockpile has been well documented for years, and despite following this up by claiming “The United States has evidence,” it is based entirely on publicly available reports on the size of that stockpile made regularly available by the IAEA.
Sandwiched between the headline and the opening sentence, we have a photograph of the Arak heavy water plant in Iran. It’s big and impressive looking, which is why it is a favorite photo for these sorts of articles. It also has, as a practical matter, nothing to do with the story of Iran’s uranium stockpile. Indeed, it is only tangentially related to the Iranian nuclear program at all.
Heavy water is water in which the hydrogen atoms in our familiar H2O are deuterium. That is to say, the hydrogen has a proton and a neutron, instead of merely a proton. This makes the hydrogen, and by extension the water molecules, heavier. This has a number of applications in science, not the least of which is a very specific type of nuclear reactor, which produces medical isotopes, and which Iran, with international blessing and help, is trying to put together. Iran had been relying on the U.S.-built Tehran Research Reactor for these isotopes, but that was built in 1967, so it is well beyond its lifespan, and requires the use of more highly enriched fuel rods which the U.S. has objected to Iran importing.
Iran, a nation of over 80 million people, sought a modern reactor using the heavy water process instead of abandoning nuclear medicine. Heavy water reactors don’t require substantial enrichment like the old reactor did, and this would theoretically eliminate the concern about the fuel rods. The heavy water reactors do, as a byproduct, give off some plutonium in waste, which is an alternate track to a weapon, but there is no reason to think Iran’s reactor would produce anywhere near enough plutonium, nor is there evidence Iran has even considered how to extract the plutonium if at some point in the future this is a real problem.
Plutonium is a whole other conversation anyhow, as the Free Beacon article and all of the major articles on Iran’s nuclear program are based on uranium. Iran actually has uranium, so that is a better focus, and the lack of proliferation concern surrounding the uranium stockpile is both more important and more relevant.
Launched in 2011, the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant produces energy using 3.5% enriched uranium as fuel. This is considered low-enriched uranium and is the target level for all of Iran’s enrichment program. The stockpile is kept at 3.5% to ultimately be turned into fuel for Bushehr.
Generally speaking, Iran sends that uranium to Russia, who produces the fuel for them. The U.S. has objected to this, and in May revoked waivers allowing Russia to do it. It’s not clear that Russia would feel they needed a waiver from the U.S., but this was part of the growth of the Iran stockpile.
Under the P5+1 nuclear deal, Iran would voluntarily keep its stockpile beneath 200 kg of 3.5% low-enriched uranium in return for sanctions relief. With the U.S. blocking sanctions relief, Iran sought talks with the remaining parties of the deal. When the talks were put off, Iran announced, in June of 2019, they would stop voluntarily complying, and since then, the stockpile has steadily grown.
That 15 months after, with an active civilian enrichment program, that stockpile now far exceeds 200 kg is hardly surprising. Indeed, it is ten times that cap, just over 2,000 kg. Ten times an arbitrarily set cap is still arbitrary, but it’s a round figure, which is why the media is once again trotting out proliferation stories. The claim then is from this starting position, Iran is 3.5 months from atomic weapons.
We can point out one serious problem with this, and another worthwhile concern. Iran briefly enriched uranium to 20%, to fuel the aforementioned Tehran reactor, but its centrifuges are under constant IAEA monitoring, and set to enrich to 3.5%. Weapons-grade uranium is minimum 90%, which Iran’s program has never even come close to attempting, and which the homemade centrifuges have never been used to attempt.
This further enrichment is very non-trivial, and while Iran presumably could figure it out with enough time, it is highly unlikely that they would be able to convert a stockpile of low-enriched uranium that took over a year to amass into weapons-grade uranium in only 3.5 months.
On top of that, Iran has never attempted to take such uranium to make a weapon, which is also non-trivial. Figuring out the exact process of turning uranium into an atomic bomb would take quite a bit of time, and converting that into a weapon small enough to deliver is a whole other challenge which would take a lot of time. And again, with the IAEA monitoring the centrifuges, Iran would be telling the whole world its intentions to even go down this path. They haven’t, and Iran has publicly, repeatedly vowed to never produce nuclear weapons.
More to the point, if Iran could snap its fingers and convert the whole stockpile, they would wind up with, optimistically, 80 kg of weapons-grade 90% uranium. How does this translate to a uranium-based arsenal?
Not great, it turns out. There are a lot of nuclear weapons designs, but let’s use America’s Little Boy design from WW2 as a model, because it is halfway well-documented, and a good example of a first-generation weapon. This contained 64 kg of weapons-grade uranium.
If Iran somehow went through all of this process, which again would take years, not three and a half months, the next step would be a successful detonation in a test to prove they’d entered the nuclear club. And beyond starting a huge war, a detonation of this type of bomb would cost them 64 kg of weapons-grade uranium, meaning they wouldn’t have enough to make a second bomb to do anything with.
While it would be conceivably possible to make smaller bombs to get more than one out of the stockpile, that is a far more complicated design problem and makes this whole process take even longer.
In conclusion, Iran has no easy path to a nuclear weapon, even if they tried to make one, which they aren’t doing anyhow. The stockpile’s size is irrelevant to making weapons, because it is far too low-enriched, and meant for energy production.
Instead of brow-beating Iran to such an extent that they believe a weapon is their own way to deter war, those genuinely worried about the stockpile should be encouraging the sanctions relief to save the nuclear deal, and encouraging Russia to convert the uranium to fuel. All of these problems were worked out in the nuclear deal in the first place, and it is only U.S. efforts to undermine the deal that imperil it.
Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, the Toronto Star, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Providence Journal, the Daily Caller, The American Conservative, The Washington Times, andthe Detroit Free Press.