Henry Sokolski

The promised progress from the Iranian nuclear deal appears still to be far from materializing.  The deal, or more formally, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was signed on July 14, 2015.  On September 10th, the last attempt to block the deal in the US Congress failed.  Almost immediately, a magical array of coincidences began.

1)  September 12:  Iran finds an "unexpectedly high" reserve of uranium.  According to Reuters, extraction will begin soon.  Prior assumptions by the West were that Iran had an insufficient domestic supply of uranium, and would soon need to import.  The ability to influence import routes was implicitly viewed as a natural brake on cheating.  That brake is gone.

"I cannot announce (the level of) Iran's uranium mine reserves. The important thing is that before aerial prospecting for uranium ores we were not too optimistic, but the new discoveries have made us confident about our reserves," Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.
 

Through the magic of flying machines, Iran discovers it really does have big uranium deposits.

 

Yup; a little magic from flying machines, and all of a sudden Iran found Uranium.  Of course, pretty much every country on earth prospects its territory for valuable natural resources, and does so all the time.  The US Geological Survey, for example, was founded way back in 1879.  It has been looking for valuable minerals ever since.  Given how focused Iran has been on the nuclear fuel cycle, the idea they just discovered a new deposit is laughable.  Alas, it is hardly the only example of laughing.

2)  October 10:  Iran tests a nuclear-capable ballistic missile, in clear violation of UN Security Council resolution 1929.  The resolution was adopted in 2010; it remains in effect until the Joint Comprehensive Plan takes effect.  But even after that,

Iran will still be "called upon" to refrain from undertaking any work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons for a period of up to eight years, according to a Security Council resolution adopted in July.

Countries would be allowed to transfer missile technology and heavy weapons to Iran on a case-by-case basis with council approval.

However, in July a U.S. official called this provision meaningless and said the United States would veto any suggested transfer of ballistic missile technology to Iran.

Somebody ought to email John Kerry that no "transfer" will be needed before there's a problem, and that perhaps "calling upon" Iran not to take action isn't the best strategy to contain proliferation. 

3)  October 15:  Iranian underground missile bases enable surprise launches.  In the off chance that maybe Iran mines and enriches its own uranium and loads it into a warhead in its own ballistic missile, it'sIran underground missiles good to know that they have undergound launch bases to "store and covertly fire surface-to-surface missiles."  Although the exact location of this facility is not known, Iran is quite proud of its underground lair and published some big glossy photos.  The location shown supposedly has a complex system of very large underground tunnels, and the potential to fire the missiles through surface vents, making advance detection more difficult.  Iran has stated it has many of these underground installations, which may or may not be true.

4)  Plutonium pathways and the Joint Agreement:  unsung or not so much?  As highlighted by the New York Times, a major benefit of the deal (they term it the "unsung concession") is Iranian agreement to redesign their Arak reactor so it can't be used to produce plutonium. The Times notes that

some nuclear experts voice incomprehension at what they see as a lopsided focus on uranium in evaluations of the deal reached with Iran — under which Tehran would forsake the production of plutonium.

Greg Jones, who as worked with both the RAND Corporation and the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), has a somewhat less sanguine take on this part of the deal:

The reactor's original design utilized natural uranium fuel, heavy water as the moderator and had a power level of 40 MW.  This reactor would have produced nine to ten kilograms of plutonium per year.  Under the terms of the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) the reactor will be redesigned to use approximately 3.5% enriched uranium fuel and have its power level reduced to 20 MW.

The reactor will still produce significant amounts of plutonium, about one to one and one half kilograms of plutonium a year.  Though Iran is required to export the spent nuclear fuel containing the plutonium, Iran is allowed to keep the fuel for at least one year, which would allow Iran to accumulate at least two to three kilograms of plutonium, enough for a nuclear weapon.  Though the Administration claims that the JCPOA blocks Iran's plutonium path to a nuclear weapon, this clearly is not the case.

While reducing the amount of plutonium produced by this reactor would seem to be an important accomplishment, it is not. The JCPOA will accelerate the completion of the Arak reactor and the start of its plutonium production by having the IAEA and countries such as Russia provide technical, material and financial assistance.

Indeed, Russia and Iran do seem to be BFF's these days.

5)  Closing the potential channel of bomb material from power reactors.  Henry Sokolski, the Executive Director of NPEC, has another interesting angle of this core issue of containing Iranian access to fissionable material.  He points out that the negotiating team has inadequately addressed the potential for military diversion from Iran's light-water power reactor (LWR) at Bushehr.  Is this a big deal?  Sokolski thinks so:  in the early 1990s, this reactor was a "key focus of international concern."

The administrations of Bill Clinton and both the Bushes initially did all they could to prevent its completion, not only because it was serving as a cover for other nuclear-weapons-related activities (e.g., uranium enrichment, the transfer of weapon design information, and heavy-water-reactor technology and hardware), but also because the reactor itself was seen as a potential source of nuclear-weapons-explosive plutonium. When it became clear, however, that Bushehr was likely to be completed and that any hope of securing Russian assistance in limiting Iran's uranium-enrichment and heavy-water-reactor projects turned on grandfathering Bushehr, top Bush officials decided in 2007 to make the concession. After this, what was done at Bushehr was treated as an intrinsically "peaceful" activity. Even the politicians and governments most suspicious of Iran and critical of the Iran deal - George W. Bush, the French, and Benjamin Netanyahu - now accept the legitimacy of Iran's present and future "peaceful" power reactors. Because such critics of the deal did not demand that there be additional surveillance of Bushehr, those focused on closing the deal didn't ask. After all, LWRs were deemed to be unambiguously "peaceful."

He notes that LWRs have long been a concern, and that lightly irradiated fuel poses the largest risk.  Three years ago, "Iran emptied all of the fuel from Bushehr after only a few months of operation," a fuel load with enough weapons-grade plutonium to make as many as 24 weapons. 

Conversion requires a chemical processing plant, but there remains a concern that such a clandestine plant does exist within Iran.  While preventing this proliferation venue entirely may not be possible, it can be greatly reduced fairly simply:  by tracking the spent fuel at all Iranian reactors via round-the-clock monitoring.  The Joint Agreement included this for most Iranian facilities; but it did not include such monitoring at Bushehr.  Sokolski quite reasonably argues it should.

Earth Track Blog Post

Another useful summary of the proliferation concerns associated with "peaceful" power reactors from Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center:

At first blush, our government’s approach to head off Iranian nuclear weapons with tighter sanctions and military threats seems totally at odds with its continued effort to negotiate a disarmament deal with Pyongyang. Yet, in one key respect, both of these approaches and a broad swath of bipartisan expertise are quite unified—namely, they support these countries’ continued construction and operation of light water power reactors (LWR) for generating electricity, viewing these reactors as benign. This is not only mistaken but dangerous, and not just in the case of North Korea and Iran.

In fact, civilian LWRs can be copious producers of plutonium suitable for nuclear weapons. The argument one often hears, that the plutonium these reactors produce is unsuitable for simple weapon designs, is simply wrong. The suitability of the plutonium for weapons depends on how long the plutonium-containing spent fuel stays in the reactor. The longer the fuel stays in the reactor the more optimal it is for power production but the less optimal it is for use in nuclear weapons. The common assumption is that the reactor’s owner would not tamper with commercial refueling schedules. This assumption is simply silly.

Nonetheless, Obama administration officials and many of their critics continue to describe LWRs as a safe proposition, so long as they are inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and are not accompanied by reprocessing facilities to extract plutonium from their spent fuel or enrichment facilities to produce fresh fuel. This mistaken view got its greatest boost from George W. Bush. No friend of Iran, Bush in 2005 said the United States had no problem with the Bushehr nuclear power reactor​—​it was just Iran’s centrifuge enrichment technology that concerned us. Indeed, small centrifuge plants that are claimed by owners to be used for producing low-enriched uranium fuel for reactors are a proper proliferation concern because they could also be used to produce highly enriched uranium for bombs. But building a small clandestine reprocessing plant to extract the plutonium from LWR spent fuel is actually easier than putting up a centrifuge plant. Nonproliferation policy hasn’t been taking this possibility seriously enough.

The full article can be read here.