By Samuel M. Hickey
According to the Critical Issues poll done by the University of Maryland, a large majority of Americans across the political spectrum believe that Iran possesses nuclear weapons. It does NOT. Iran conducts nuclear research, contrary to its international commitments, into technologies with weapons applications, but it has not yet taken steps into weaponization. The confusion has arisen in part because terms such as uranium enrichment, plutonium separation and fuel cycle have slipped into the common lexicon, cropping up in news stories, political speeches made by Members of Congress and the President, and even in political advertisements. Some are trying to educate while others are trying to horrify for political gain.
Whatever the reason, misconceptions about the nature, intent and legality of certain nuclear processes have spread. To understand the stakes involved in nuclear diplomacy with Iran, North Korea and other countries in the future, a layperson should have a rudimentary grasp of these terms, the nuclear fuel cycle and which parts of it are most vulnerable to weapons proliferation.
Here’s the problem: the same materials, processes and technologies can be used for civilian or military purposes. The fissile materials used in nuclear weapons are plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Fissile materials are those that can sustain an explosive fission chain reaction. However, both uranium and plutonium can be used in reactor fuel to generate electricity or to produce medical isotopes. Nuclear techniques are also used to diagnose and fight cancer.
Because the international community cannot easily intervene to prevent a country from pursuing a nuclear weapon once it has indigenously mastered this technology, there is a need for strong safeguards administered by the unbiased and apolitical International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, even strong safeguards do not necessarily provide sufficient confidence.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty only forbids member states from building nuclear weapons. It is silent on the key steps of enrichment and reprocessing that could produce fissile materials, the biggest obstacle for those who would seek nuclear weapons. Thus, no part of the nuclear fuel cycle is illegal, so convincing any country to not do certain activities requires a trade-off. A mixture of military threats, economic sanctions and diplomacy is often necessary to keep certain countries from getting too close for comfort to a nuclear weapon.
Hungarian scientist Leo Szilard was the first to conceive of the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction, but he then spent the rest of his life trying to put the genie back in the bottle, founding the Center’s sister organization, Council for a Livable World, in 1962. In the same vein, in October 2003, the then-director general of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, proposed the multilateralization of all uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities to dispel many of these proliferation concerns. So far, the international community has not been receptive.
Despite the confusion, there remain reasons for pragmatism with Iran. The negotiation process continues, and Iran has not chosen to take critical steps toward weaponization as I have written for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It is important, however, to be precise. The spread of misinformation, whether with malicious intent or simply happenstance, can increase tensions and with Iran, the possibility of miscalculation is a dangerous combination when weapons of mass destruction are concerned.