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Iran Goes Nuclear

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Iran Goes Nuclear:

An Analysis of the Bushehr Nuclear Plant and Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

by Renanah Miles

Download the Full Article: Iran Goes Nuclear

Iran won't swerve first and Russia will do as Russia pleases are, perhaps, the intended takeaways from Sunday's ceremony opening the Bushehr nuclear power plant. The event itself was uncharacteristically subdued, factual, just one more tick on the clock counting down to Iran going nuclear. But in light of Bushehr, it's a very different announcement made two days prior that is most worth considering: Resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks next month. Progress in the talks is critical to buying Israel, America and wary Arab states strategic room to maneuver with Iran.

With impeccable timing, the news preempted the spotlight from Bushehr, and will likely do so again in September. The planned start date for the talks -- September 2 -- is purportedly linked to the expiration date of the Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank at the end of September, an incendiary issue that if resumed would likely burn bridges to negotiation yet again. If talks start on time though, it will handily refocus attention off another Iranian milestone the same weekend -- Bushehr is scheduled to become operational Sunday, September 5.

Download the Full Article: Iran Goes Nuclear

Renanah Miles is a student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. From 2007-2008, she deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The views in this article are her own. They do not reflect the official views of the United States Government.

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Tyrtaios, as long as we're dialing in what the 2007 NIE did or didn't say, allow me to assert that draft plans for a nuclear explosive device is not directly equivalent to a Bomb- although it is in direct line of development, unlike the Bushehr LWR. Trinity demonstrated a nuclear explosive device, assembled in place, but possibly deliverable by heavy rail transport. Hiroshima demonstrated an air-deliverable bomb. I grant you that today's wide body jet transports reduce the distinction somewhat, in theory.

It's my sense that any modern state whose rivals are seen moving to acquire nuclear weapons (a greater bang for buck than power generation) must execute its own bomb program, to ensure neighborhood nuclear parity (or better). If Chile thinks Argentina is working on the Bomb, then Chile needs to crank up a program too. Same for England and France, or regional rivals Arabia and Iran.

That ship left port, back when Revolutionary Iran realized that arch-enemy Saddam nearly stole a march on them. I don't need an NIE to guess at that. But if there is an NIE, it should be read carefully. We know that now.

Tyrtaios (not verified)

Thu, 08/26/2010 - 11:04pm

Actually Anonymous, most people only read the first couple of paragraphs of the hotly contested 2007 NIE, and either found what they wanted to hear or didn't.

A full reading of that document would also reveal that the authors included that Iran had previously been working on constructing a nuclear explosive device (bomb) and were "known" to still have some of the necessary data and infrastructure for continuation of such a weapons program.

An aquaintenance of mine might explain it that in burying that key information in the aforementioned well over 100 page NIE, the intelligence community didn't want to get stung with what happened with their analysis that helpED enable the run-up to our venture into Mesopotamia.

So, to be sure, it was in your words deliberate, but for an opposite reason. What our gun toting Ms. Miles is pointing out is how cleverly the media may have been played, and in her words, that the event at Bushehr
does not signify that Iran actually has a nuclear weapon (or even a reliable delivery system for such).


Mark Pyruz

Thu, 08/26/2010 - 9:01pm

What Iranian nuclear weapons are being referred to in this thread commentary? According to the 2007 NIE, there isn't even a weapons program going on in Iran, let alone ANY actual weapons.

So we're comparing a non-existent weapons program to an Israeli nuclear weapon stockpile of over 200 deliverable WMDs?

Hmm. The last time a (deliberate) miscalculation like this was made, it ended up costing American taxpayers over a trillion US dollars and the US military over 30,000 casualties.

Renanah Miles (not verified)

Thu, 08/26/2010 - 2:16pm

Tyrtaios, you are right that timing is everything - it was that very observation that prompted this piece. Noting the media cycle from last week, news of the peace talks resuming, as well as the administration's new report that Iran is still a year away (even on a "dash") from producing a nuclear weapon, dominated coverage Friday. This convergence of announcements seems to have directly influenced the subsequent lack of outcry or media attention to Bushehr.

Moreover, as others have pointed out here - Bushehr does not signify that Iran has obtained a nuclear weapon capability. But it is a nuclear capability nonetheless, representing a movement forward down a path Iran shows no indication of abandoning (nuclear capability that includes a weapons capacity).

BJ (not verified)

Thu, 08/26/2010 - 1:24pm

I am not sure if there has been a formal policy of providing a nuclear umbrella to Israel. However, I do remember that Hillary promised to retaliate with nuclear force against an Iranian attack on Israel during the 2008 Presidential Primary campaign (clearly an attempt to gain votes in the primary). Obama's recent announcement that Iran is still at least a year away from a nuke probably means more time to convince Israel to give up a first strike policy in return for the US nuclear umbrella. However, as you said Tyrtaios, Israel has a significantly powerful nuclear fleet that could easily destroy Tehran, so I wonder if the US' offer may be superfluous.

Tyrtaios (not verified)

Thu, 08/26/2010 - 12:48pm

You are correct in your last sentence BJ.

Often overlooked is Israel's small but agile submarine fleet, which will surely be armed with Jericho 3 missiles shortly, and its capabilities against any Persian or Arab exiting ASW capability, presenting a serious regional secondary response capability by Israel.

Additionally, I am guessing that Israel has also been promised to be put under the United States' nuclear umbrella as well - food for thought?

BJ (not verified)

Thu, 08/26/2010 - 11:44am

While it is difficult to ascertain the precise number and capability of Israel's nuclear weapons program, I would think that Israel currently has, and will continue to have a second strike capability vis-a-vis Iran. Regardless of Iran's nuclear weapons developments, Israel's capability to deliver a nuclear strike from land, air and sea would give Ahmadinejhad and the Mullahs pause before they ordered any sort of strike on Israel. So I disagree that Israel's nuclear deterrent simply evaporates when Iran has enough HEU or Pu to throw inside a Shabab 1 or an aging F-4.

Tyrtaios (not verified)

Thu, 08/26/2010 - 10:58am

Iran goes nuclear? Timing seems to be everything as the Russians originally lead the international community to believe they wouldn't be loading fuel rods at Bushehr until late September.

One wonders if the time table wasn't moved-up to take any Israeli military options off the table and whether the Obama administration knew this beforehand or got snookered?

Interestingly, there seems to have been little public outcry in Jerusalem by Netanyahu nor by the Obama administration in Washington over this event at Bushehr.

One wonders what we offered Israel in the way of gifts and/or rewards for restraint on any idea of attacking the reactor at Bushehr, as well as meeting the Palestinians with a conciliatory attitude in the upcoming negotiations? Negotiations I would remind everyone that neither Israel or the Palestinians sought.


Thu, 08/26/2010 - 1:42am

WW: "A mixture of Pu isotopes from a LWR screws up any chain reaction, and is VERY difficult to separate..."

Yes. My question is whether the amount of burn time makes any difference in the accumulation of the wrong isotopes and thus in the difficulty of separating Pu-239. If it would still be far more difficult than enriching uranium, then we shouldn't have a problem.


While I confirmed with Renanah, the final decision on the title was mine. I chose it precisely to highlight and remind us of the many upcoming decision points in September that are abnormal for late summer,

1. Iran's Nuclear Capacity
2. Operation Iraqi Freedom mission change
3. Israel-Palestine Peace talks
4. WTC mosque protests
5. Surge in Afghanistan
6. The Disarray in Mexico

I understand your dissent, but I wanted to state that I take responsibility for the title choice- right or wrong.

We have several provactive Op-Eds forthcoming.


I have to object to the title of this string, since the lurid 'goes nuclear' caption casually implies weapons capability, which Bushehr does not confer. Many countries (Egypt for instance) now have nuclear power, and medical reactors such as the one Iran already has use 20% enriched uranium to produce the medical isotopes.

Back in Pres. Ford's day, an administration that included young Cheney and Rumsfeld signed a memo of understanding to provide the Shah's Iran a full nuclear fuel cycle, including reprocessing and plutonium production, and more than a dozen large reactors. Coupled with an Israeli ballistic missile partnership, THAT was a nuclear weapons program.

WW (not verified)

Thu, 08/26/2010 - 5:00am

DB, according to the omniscient wikipedia, your information is accurate. It's possible, but highly impractical in an LWR. The dangerous Pu240 contaminate is formed when the 239 LWR product captures another neutron. So if the burn is interrupted early, by design or malfunction, the initial Pu239 yield hasn't morphed to Pu240, much.

Getting at the Pu239 means removing and pulverizing tons of fuel for a chemical separation process. The reactor is offline until more fuel is obtained (or the remainder re-fabricated) and reloaded. It would take a new set of fuel rods each cycle. That sounds fantastically expensive, time consuming and therefore obvious, even without inspections that would void the rooshun warrantee, among other hazards

Plutonium is really nasty stuff to process and machine for weapons, even for the handful of expert countries who do it enough to make a business out of it.

Contrary to the 'any graduate student could...' meme, painfully accruing a critical mass is just one step. The fizzle event that the N.Koreans experienced sounds like the unstable Pu240 contamination problem that wiki describes.

Re Plutonium production,
Thx for the primer, anonymous

DB, each isotope has different characteristics for a fission chain reaction that leads to a cascade of energy and splitting atoms. Pu 239 is the one that makes small fission bombs suitable for missiles, and that reaction can also be 'pumped' into a thermonuclear fusion H-bomb. (Israel produces deuterium and tritium for this purpose and once provided heavy water to S. Africa.)

A mixture of Pu isotopes from a LWR screws up any chain reaction, and is VERY difficult to separate, just as 'enriching' the chemically identical Uranium isotopes to select the one for fission is difficult and expensive.

I don't know why news reports talk liket fuelling the reactor makes it any different from attacking a uranium processing facility. Either one would be a radiological WMD attack, from the standpoint of intentionally blasting nuclear materials far and wide. In fact, attacking enrichment facilities would likely scatter far more radioactive poison, because the feedstock is a pressurized U-hexaflouride gas.


Wed, 08/25/2010 - 11:33pm

"In the Israeli reactor, the fuel is recycled every few weeks, or at most every couple of months. This maximizes the yield of the highest-quality, weapons-grade plutonium. In the Iranian-type reactor, the core is exchanged only every 30-40 months -- the longer the fuel cycle, the better for the production of power."

Couldn't the core could be exchanged much sooner if the Iranians wanted to try to use it for proliferation rather than for power? I thought a pressurized light water reactor could produce some weapons-grade plutonium if the burnup is low. However, I think there is general agreement that a light water reactor is not an efficient a way to produce weapons-grade plutonium, and in this case if they tried to do so the diversion would be noticed quickly.

Mark Pyruz

Wed, 08/25/2010 - 8:10pm

Anon: which Iranian leader has suggested using nuclear weapons in the region? The only leader I can recall was Rasfanjani, who depicted Israel's nuclear weapons stockpile as unworkable, as hypothetically, even after an Israeli first strike, the country is so small even the most minimal counterstrike would devastate the country. Other than this one comment, which was made something like 15 years ago (Rasfanjani is no longer president, and is now in the political wilderness), the most outstanding comments in this regard have all been a disavowal of nuclear weapons, such as Supreme Leader Khamenei's expressed fatwa against them.

Concerning Bushehr, the testable part of the claim -- that the Bushehr reactor is a proliferation threat -- is demonstrably false. There are several reasons, some technical, some institutional.

--The Iranian reactor yields the wrong kind of plutonium for making bombs.

--The spent fuel pins in the Iranian reactor would, in any case, be too dangerous to handle for weapons manufacture.

--Any attempt to divert fuel from the Iranian plant will be detectable.

--The Russian partners in the Bushehr project have stipulated that the fuel pins must be returned to Russia, as has been their practice worldwide for other export reactors.

Just as there are many different kinds of nuclear reactors, there are different forms of plutonium, distinctions that are almost never made in public discussions of nuclear proliferation.

There are two different kinds of reactors, heavy-water or graphite-moderated reactors; and pressurized, or "light water" reactors (PWRs). The Dimona nuclear power plant in Israel is an example of the former. The Bushehr plant is the latter.

The Israeli plant is ideal for yielding the desirable isotope of Plutonium (Pu 239) necessary for making bombs. The Iranian plant will produce plutonium, but the wrong kind. It will produce the heavier isotopes, Pu240, Pu241 and Pu242 -- almost impossible to use in making bombs.

Crucial to extracting weapons-grade plutonium is the type of reactor and the mode in which it is operated. The Israeli-type plant can be refueled "on line," without shutting down. Thus, high-grade plutonium can be obtained covertly and continuously. In the Iranian plant, the entire reactor will have to be shut down -- a step that cannot be concealed from satellites, airplanes and other sources -- in order to permit the extraction of even a single fuel pin.

In the Israeli reactor, the fuel is recycled every few weeks, or at most every couple of months. This maximizes the yield of the highest-quality, weapons-grade plutonium. In the Iranian-type reactor, the core is exchanged only every 30-40 months -- the longer the fuel cycle, the better for the production of power.

For the Iranian reactor at Bushehr, any effort to divert fuel will be transparent because a shutdown will be immediately noticeable. No case of production of bomb-grade material from fuel from an Iranian-type plant has ever been reported.

It should be noted in any discussion of the Israel/Palestine conflict that to nuke one is to nuke the other. There is no combination of perfect weather that would make that kind of attack work.

There is some clear arguments, that have good demonstrations, that Iran would be making no end of mistakes by building weapons, much less using them. By having leaders stupid enough to suggest that using nuclear weapons anywhere in the region would be useful, the Iranian state has also demonstrated a level of dangerous stupidity that is very obvious, and quite deep as well.