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Why Iran's nuclear reactor may not be an immediate threat

Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor is set to be loaded with fuel Saturday. Some hawks say bomb it now, but leading nuclear experts advocate a wait-and-see approach.

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During that period of time, Bushehr's first load of fuel could produce about 300 kilograms (kg) of weapons-usable plutonium – enough to entice the Iranians to cheat on international inspectors, Sokolski says. The fuel would be lower in radioactivity at this time – so easier to handle – while also higher in plutonium concentration and better for making bombs.

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Von Hipple says it would be about one-third that amount. Still, it takes as little as 6 kg of plutonium to build a bomb, he says.

"The reactor uses tons of low enriched uranium that can be diverted and enriched to make bomb grade uranium fuel – and it produces tons of spent fuel that contains weapons useable plutonium," Sokolski says. The plutonium could be "stripped out chemically relatively quickly in small plants that could be built covertly."

Lyman and Von Hipple agree this scenario is conceivable ­– but just barely, they say. It is far less likely, for instance, than the possibility that Iran might simply build a clandestine fuel-enrichment plant to develop bomb fuel with no connection at all to Bushehr.

"Iran would have to steal the fuel out from the under the noses of international inspectors," Lyman says. "The only rationale for using fuel from Bushehr is if they wanted a much higher rate of weapons production which would require a hard-to-conceal large-scale reprocessing plant. I don't think it would be a great benefit to them to build a small quick and dirty plant."

In Lyman's view, Iran is unlikely to tap into Bushehr's closely watched trove and risk the wrath of the world. The reactor does not pose a large proliferation threat as long as close international monitoring continues – and it can exclude the existence of a clandestine plant to reprocess Bushehr fuel.

The spent fuel rods are supposed to go back to Russia and Iran has said all along that it has no intention of building nuclear weapons.

"It's not a slam dunk that the Iranians could get away with it," says Von Hipple of the diversion scenario. "The question is: Is this the most plausible way for Iran, if wants a bomb? What is the lowest risk way to go about it? This doesn't seem like the way to do it."

But whether the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is up to the task of ensuring that none of the fuel in Bushehr goes missing worries Sokolski. If IAEA inspectors check their cameras and appear on-site only once every 90 days, which is standard practice, then fuel could be stolen, processed, and installed in waiting bombs before anyone could do anything, he says.

Bushehr's fuel could be clandestinely extracted and made into bomb material using a "quick and dirty" reprocessing approach made public by Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers in the 1970s, Sokolski notes.

"You couldn't filch this stuff without it being noticed eventually," he says in an interview. "But the point is: What is anyone going to do about it?"

While the Russian light-water reactor design is widely regarded as fairly resistant to misuse – the technical capabilities of the reactor to produce bomb material are quite clear, experts say.

"It's technically true that the spent fuel coming out of this light-water reactor will be more radioactive and difficult to use for nuclear weapons as time between refueling grows," says Leonard Spector, a nonproliferation expert who directs the Washington office of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "It's also absolutely true that the spent fuel from it can be reprocessed [to obtain plutonium] for use in nuclear weapons."

But whether Iran is willing to divert fuel from the reactor in defiance of the global community, reprocess it into bomb fuel, and thereby set off a firestorm of condemnation and likely military attacks is unknown.

"Definitely there's a game going on with Iran building secret underground facilities," Lyman, the nuclear physicist, says. "My point is whether there is a real need for immediate military action when we have already tolerated the Iranians building thousands of centrifuges? I don't think so."