Saber Rattling & Iran’s Nuclear Program (TWiN Podcast 75)
News outlets around the world were buzzing last week when Iran announced in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it has built a second nuclear fuel enrichment facility deep under a mountain near the city of Qom. The UN security council appeared outraged and the US government claimed it has known of the facility for “some time.”
There continues to be deep disagreement between Iran and the UN Security Council about the Islamic Republic’s intentions and their responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Iran claims they are following the rules to the letter: they notified the IAEA about the facility 180 days before it is scheduled to go into operation, precisely as required by their agreement with the IAEA. President Obama on the other hand, stated Iran is “breaking the rules all nations must follow.,” and other members of the Security Council seem to agree. They cite a later UN provision that requires Iran to notify them before building any such facility.
Herein lies the problem: there are TWO SETS OF RULES! The earlier version required Iran to notify the IAEA before loading special nuclear material into a new facility – essentially they had to tell the IAEA (a branch of the UN) 180 days before beginning operation. A later version of the rule requires notification before beginning beginning construction of an enrichment facility. Iran claims they are not required to comply with the later version because other parties to the agreement (the USA and Europe) failed to meet their end of the deal. Specifically, under what are called the “additional protocols” and the “Subsidiary Agreement” the USA and Western European nations were to recognize Iran’s legitimate right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and in exchange Iran would agree to notify the IAEA before BUILDING more enrichment capacity. The earlier version of the agreements required notification later in the process – before OPERATING a new enrichment facility.
At least one nuclear weapons expert says Iran is right. Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector, says Iran is both legally and technically correct. According to Mr. Ritter, Iran agreed to voluntarily follow the later agreement pending ratification by their Parliament. Since their Parliament has never ratified the agreement, Iran is not legally bound to it. Instead, Iran is bound by the earlier agreement requiring Iran to inform the IAEA about the facility before beginning operation.
Mr. Ritter also says the IAEA currently has a 100% accounting for all of Iran’s nuclear material and none has been diverted to weapons production or enriched to weapons grade. If Scott Ritter is correct, and I have no reason to doubt his expertise, then two things are true: (1) Iran has not broken any laws or treaties by building a second enrichment facility, and (2) there should be no cause for alarm or immediate concern that they will develop nuclear weapons.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to enjoy the company of a group of old friends, all of them well educated and well traveled. Somehow we got on the topic of Iran’s nuclear program and they seemed surprised by my opinion that Iran is being bullied by the US and other security council members. “Why?”, they asked, “would an oil rich nation like Iran bother with a nuclear energy program when they have all the energy they need?” I think there are many people who have the same question and conclude Iran’s sole purpose for developing a nuclear energy program is to produce weapons. To me the answer is fairly simple: Iran wants what every nation wants; products to export with a value greater than their imports, a secure energy supply, and good jobs for its citizens.
While Iran is the 5th largest petroleum producer in the world, they import 40% of their energy supply! This is because they lack the refining capacity to turn their crude oil into fuel products. They are exporting crude oil, a valuable raw material, but they are missing out of the opportunity to create jobs and wealth at home by turning that raw material into higher value products to use at home and to sell abroad. They would like to generate a surplus of wealth that they can invest into building more refining capacity and more manufacturing capacity for other kinds of durable goods. They are exporting a lower value product, essentially paying other nations refine it, then importing the higher valued finished products.
In addition, virtually all of their electricity comes from burning oil. This is oil they could be exporting to earn cash, or refining at home and exporting the products for even greater earnings. Because nuclear energy can produce electricity at a fraction of the cost of oil, they want to build nuclear plants replace the oil-fired plants. This way they can sell more oil or refined products, and refine oil with lower cost energy from nuclear plants. They are also looking to the future. As oil becomes more scarce the cost of continuing to burn oil for electricity will become a greater and greater burden on their economy. They need to have an energy source that is insulated from that price volatility. It makes perfect economic sense that Iran wants to build nuclear power plants and to produce their own nuclear energy fuel.
I have been critical of Iran in the past for their unwillingness to operate their nuclear program under full transparency and for their aggressive statements that tend to destabilize an already fragile situation in the Middle East. I still hold those opinions. However, I support their developing nuclear know how and the capability to build power plants and create their own nuclear fuel. Of course I oppose their developing nuclear weapons, yet I believe that if they have a strong desire and motivation to acquire nuclear weapons there is very little any other nation can do to stop them. Military action short of total annihilation would create only temporary setbacks and would foster such ill will that revenge and retaliation would inevitably follow.
Thorium Energy Alliance Conference
On a much more positive note, I want let you know about a very special event that will be held on October 19th and 20th in Washington DC. The first ever Thorium Energy Alliance Conference will be held at the Kellogg Conference Hotel. This is a two day event that will feature topics like understanding thorium energy, recent investments in the technology, various reactor designed that use thorium as a fuel, and much more.
Here’s a flier for the conference and links to their web site where you can get all the information on rates, locations, and the agenda. I am still unsure if I’ll be able to attend, but I am doing my best to be there. One thing that I think is fantastic is that the entire conference will be video taped and will eventually be posted on the Thorium Energy Alliance web site. When that happens even if you are unable to attend in person you’ll be able to review more than 20 hours of video on line.