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Technical Hitch May Weaken Iran Nuclear Threat

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By David Ignatius
Friday, October 16, 2009

Since you're probably not a regular reader of the trade publication Nucleonics Week, let me summarize an article that appeared in its Oct. 8 issue. It reported that Iran's supply of low-enriched uranium -- the potential feedstock for nuclear bombs -- appears to have certain "impurities" that "could cause centrifuges to fail" if the Iranians try to boost it to weapons grade.

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Now that's interesting. The seeming breakthrough in negotiations on Oct. 1 in Geneva -- where Iran agreed to send most of its estimated 1,500 kilograms of low-enriched uranium abroad for further enrichment -- may not have been exactly what it appeared. Iran may have had no alternative but to seek foreign help in enrichment because its own centrifuges wouldn't work.

"The impurities, certain metallic fluoride compounds, would interfere with centrifuge enrichment" at Iran's facility at Natanz, reported the newsletter's Bonn correspondent, Mark Hibbs.

This news strikes me as a potential bombshell. If the Nucleonics Week report is accurate (and there's some uncertainty among experts about how serious the contamination problem is), the Iranian nuclear program is in much worse shape than most analysts had realized. The contaminated fuel it has produced so far would be all but useless for nuclear weapons. To make enough fuel for a bomb, Iran might have to start over -- this time avoiding the impurities.

You've got to hand it to the Iranians, though, for making the best of what might be a bad situation: In the proposal embraced in Geneva, they have gotten the West to agree to decontaminate fuel that would otherwise be useful only for the low-enriched civilian nuclear power they have always claimed is their only goal.

"It's especially cheeky for Iran to try to leverage as a concession their willingness to receive international cooperation in supplying nuclear fuel," noted George Perkovich, the director of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Oct. 1 tentative agreement had been hailed because Iran was pledging to send its 3.5 percent LEU, as the low-enriched uranium is known, to Russia, where it would be boosted to the 19.75 percent level needed to fuel a research reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes. Under the tentative Geneva agreement, France offered to fabricate the higher-enriched uranium into fuel assemblies.

"The potential advantage of this, if it's implemented, is that it would significantly reduce Iran's LEU stockpile, which itself is a source of anxiety in the Middle East and elsewhere," a senior U.S. official enthused to reporters after the Geneva talks. A further meeting with Iran is set for Vienna on Monday to work out the details.

But hold the cheers, negotiators, and let's go back to the technical stuff. "If Iran's uranium feedstock must be decontaminated before it is re-enriched . . . that would suggest that the breakout scenario in Iran does not pose a near-term threat," Hibbs reported. "That is because re-enrichment by Iran of the LEU processed at Natanz without decontamination could destroy centrifuges used for this purpose." The Nucleonics Week story explained that the French company Areva "has uranium conversion-related technology and equipment that could decontaminate Iran's LEU."

How would those impurities have gotten into the uranium feedstock in the first place? That's an intriguing question. It seems that the problems reportedly arose at an Iranian plant at Isfahan that converts raw uranium into the gaseous form that can be enriched in the centrifuges. The Isfahan plant hadn't adequately removed molybdenum and other impurities, Nucleonics Week reported in 2005.

And where did the equipment at the malfunctioning Isfahan conversion plant come from? You can bet that the Iranians have been worrying about that one for a while. Indeed, the Iranians are probably wondering what other parts of their vaunted nuclear establishment may be prone to malfunction.

And if that's not enough to make the Iranians paranoid, there's the leak about the secret enrichment plant they had been burrowing into a mountain at a Revolutionary Guard base near Qom. If the United States found out about that, what else does the Great Satan know?

Here's the bottom line: There may be more time on the Iranian nuclear clock than some analysts had feared. The fuel stock that the Iranians have worked so hard to produce might damage their centrifuges if they try to enrich it into a bomb. Making a deal with Iran to enrich nuclear fuel outside the country makes sense, so long as the international community can monitor where and how it's used -- and learn whether there's a secret stash.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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