Sunday, June 5, 2011

On the Tehran Research Reactor & Polonium-210:
An E-Mail Exchange with Jeremy Bernstein

A couple days after I wrote my article on Jeremy Bernstein's latest blog post for The New York Review of Books, entitled "Iran and the Bomb: An Update," I received an e-mail from Mr. Bernstein himself (which was sent to a number of theoretical and nuclear physicists and arms control experts...and me) in which he respectfully responded to one of the points I had addressed in my post.

In turn, I wrote a reply.

Mr. Bernstein has been kind enough to allow me to post his letter here on Wide Asleep in America. It can be read below, in full, followed by my own response.


From: Jeremy Bernstein
To: Nima Shirazi and others
Date: Sat, Jun 4, 2011
Subject: ???

Another View

"What Bernstein intentionally leaves out of his hysterical hand-wringing is the fact that Iran has been enriching uranium to 19.75% (which is almost invariably rounded up to 20% to sound more ominous, since enrichment to 20% and above constitutes "high-enriched" uranium, rather than "low-enriched") for the sole purpose of continuing to provide much needed medical diagnostic isotopes for scanning and treating over 800,000 cancer patients. Iran turned to this higher level of enrichment only as a last resort to replenish its supply of medical isotopes which, after more than two decades, has been depleted (the last batch of 23 kg of 19.75% LEU was obtained in 1988 from Argentina). In advance of running out, Iran tried to purchase more on the open market under full IAEA supervision, yet this move was prevented by the United States and the subsequent LEU swap deal was canceled after the U.S. refused to act in good faith. The "stepping stone" of 19.75% LEU that Bernstein warns about is currently saving the lives of Iranian cancer patients."
This quote is taken from a blog Wide Asleep in America written by Nima Shirazi. He is clearly a serious and widely read person who feels strongly. It would take a small book to discuss all the points he brings up and in the end I doubt that it would cause him to change his mind so I thought I would focus on this one paragraph which deals with the Teheran Research Reactor-TRR. This reactor has interested me for a long time. It is an avatar for everything that has gone wrong.

This reactor is located at the Teheran Nuclear Research Center in Amir Abad, a suburb of Teheran. It was originally part of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace Program and was purchased by the Shah in the mid 1960’s by the American Machine and Foundry Corporation which was better known for making bowling alleys and bicycles. It was designed to have a power output of about five megawatts- a power reactor produces at least a thousand megawatts-so it was a small reactor. An interesting feature was that it ran originally on weapons grade-93% enriched uranium. This was true of most of these Atoms for Peace reactors and much of this uranium is unaccounted for. Typically such a reactor would use about a kilogram of uranium 235 per year. The reactor went “critical” in 1967 and by the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979 it needed more fuel. The first decision was to replace it by a so-called TRIGA-a kind of ultra-safe reactor sold by the General Atomics Company and which Freeman Dyson had played an essential role in its design. The TRIGA was paid for at least in part but because of the revolution its shipment was stopped. The Iranians decided to keep the old reactor but the re-design it so it could use low enriched uranium. In 1987 they signed a contract to pay the Argentinean Company Investicaciones Aplicados five million dollars for 115.8 kilograms of 19.57 % enriched uranium in the necessary fuel elements. One must understand that simply having the raw uranium is useless. Manufacturing it into fuel elements is non-trivial and there are only a few countries-France and Russia being examples-that can do it.

As Shirazi tells us, this reactor has been used to make medical isotopes. If you read his statement you might get the idea that all you need to make these isotopes is a certain amount of low enriched uranium. What you need is a reactor and the capacity to make the fuel elements for it. The TRR is the reactor but the Iranians do not have the capacity to make these fuel element. There are things he does not tell us. Without notifying the IAEA-which has the responsibility of supervising the reactor-the Iranians were extracting small amounts of plutonium from it. It is not that these small amounts can be used in weapons but it is that the methods used in the extraction can be scaled to extract plutonium from reactors such as the Arak reactor which can produce enough plutonium to make two nuclear weapons per year once it goes critical. The IAEA inspections of this facility have been sporadic and there is no certainty that plutonium separation techniques developed at the TRR have not moved there. In addition the Iranians were clandestinely making Polonium 210 which is used in the so-called “initiator”-the device that initiates the explosive chain reaction of neutrons in a nuclear weapon. Again it is not the amount that matters, rather it is the clandestine study of the technology. All of this has nothing to do with cancer patients.

The TRR with its swimming pool.

In recent years the TRR has been running at 3 megawatts to conserve fuel. It can probably keep running at this level for several more years but a re-stocking is in order. The most straightforward thing would be for the Iranians to buy the new fuel from the Argentinians. I am not aware that anyone would have objected to this. But instead a whole new set of alternatives were floated. In the first place the Iranians have nowhere near enough 19.75% enriched uranium to refuel the reactor even if they had the technology to make the fuel elements. So it was suggested that they send some of their 3.5% enriched uranium to Russia to be enriched to 19.75%. This would then be shipped to France where the fuel elements would be made. The Iranians objected to France and a variety of other options were suggested none of which were acceptable. Hence there is a stalemate but for the moment I would assume that the medical isotopes are still being produced and cancer patients are being treated. Here I would inject a personal note. I managed to find on the web a couple of technical papers on the TRR written by Iranian physicists. They had the email addresses. I thought that it might be interesting to have a dialogue so I emailed them explaining who I was. There was no answer.

Jeremy Bernstein


My Reply:

Thank you for this, and for including me in this discussion, Jeremy.

Here is my initial reaction to the issues you bring up:

Iran's aborted Polonium-210 research - which reportedly occurred between 1989 and 1993 - has already been fully addressed by the IAEA.

It should first be pointed out that the research, namely the irradiation of bismuth metal samples, deals with material which, as the IAEA itself admits, "is not nuclear material requiring declaration under the Safeguards Agreement." Yet, because the process produces Polonium-210 (which has civilian as well as military uses), the project was of interest to the IAEA even though the research itself was in no way a violation of Iran's IAEA agreements and Iran was under no obligation to inform the IAEA of such a project in advance.

In its investigation of Iran's explanation that the Polonium-210 experiments were "not part of any larger R&D project, but had been a personal initiative of the project leader," the IAEA requested interviews with the two Iranian scientists responsible for the project along with official paper studies, project proposals, written approvals, and meeting minutes in order to determine the veracity of Iran's claims.

In January 2004, the IAEA conducted interviews with both scientists and reported their findings this way:
"One of the scientists is currently living outside of Iran and was asked by Iran to return for the interviews. According to the scientists, two bismuth targets had been irradiated, and an attempt had been made, unsuccessfully, to extract polonium from one of them. The other irradiated bismuth target was said to have been discarded. The scientists confirmed that the purpose of the project had been only for research on the chemical separation of polonium and the development of RTGs. During follow-up discussions in Vienna in February 2004, Iranian officials said that the experiments involving Po-210 were also part of a study about neutron sources, noting that commercially available neutron sources, used, for example, for industrial applications, are not obtainable by Iran due to import restrictions." (emphasis added)
By early 2008, the IAEA reported that, in an effort to further support its statements regarding the Polonium-210 project, "Iran presented additional copies of papers and literature searches that had formed the basis for the request for approval of the project. Iran also provided copies of the project proposal, the meeting minutes and the approval document from the Scientific Advisory Committee of TNRC, as well as a complete copy of the reactor logbook for the entire period that the samples were present in the reactor."

The IAEA came to the following conclusion:
"Based on an examination of all information provided by Iran, the Agency concluded that the explanations concerning the content and magnitude of the polonium-210 experiments were consistent with the Agency’s findings and with other information available to it. The Agency considers this question no longer outstanding at this stage." (emphasis added)
While true that the IAEA added the disclaimer that, even though the matter was effectively closed, it would continue, "in accordance with its procedures and practices, to seek corroboration of its findings and to verify this issue as part of its verification of the completeness of Iran's declarations," to my knowledge, the matter has never again, in the past three years, surfaced in any subsequent IAEA report about the Iranian nuclear program.

The latest report, from May 24, 2011, which Mr. Bernstein described as "a very disturbing document," reiterates "with respect to TRR, the MIX Facility, and the other facilities to which the Agency has access, that the Agency can confirm that there are no ongoing reprocessing related activities in Iran." (emphasis added)

It should also be noted that the initiator ("trigger") which Iran is being accused of working on (with absolutely no evidence presented to back this up, of course), "uses fusion materials and does not require polonium-210," according to ISIS' David Albright, who also writes that the polonium-210 "isotope, with a relatively short radioactive half-life, must be produced typically in reactors and can severely complicate the construction and deployment of a nuclear arsenal."

In short, the Polonium-210 issue is a dead one and demonstrates absolutely no nuclear weapons work by Iran.

With regard to the need to replenish Iran's 19.75% LEU supply to keep the TRR operational, Bernstein suggests, "The most straightforward thing would be for the Iranians to buy the new fuel from the Argentinians. I am not aware that anyone would have objected to this. But instead a whole new set of alternatives were floated."

The truth of the matter is that it was Iran itself who offered to purchase more fuel on the open market, under the supervision of the IAEA. In late September 2009, in advance of renewed nuclear talks with the P5+1 in Geneva, Ahmadinejad even told The Washington Post's Lally Weymouth that "nuclear materials we are seeking to purchase are for medicinal purposes" and that Iran "would pay money for the material." (emphasis added)

He continued,
"We have in the past bought the 20 percent enriched uranium from other countries—not from the United States. Now we could buy it from the United States. I think it is a good place to start for cooperating and talking. It is an issue that is humanitarian—it is about medicine."
Nevertheless, during the Geneva talks in early October 2009, the United States and its European partners prevented any discussion of a commercial sale, but offered a "swap" proposal whereby, as Bernstein wrote, Iran would " send some of their 3.5% enriched uranium to Russia to be enriched to 19.75%. This would then be shipped to France where the fuel elements would be made." Although Bernstein claims that Iran rejected this deal and other such proposals, he omits vital information from his characterization.

Speaking in early December 2009 about the P5+1 offer, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki stated that Iran was "willing to exchange most of its uranium for processed nuclear fuel from abroad" in a phased transfer of material with full guarantees that the West "will not backtrack an exchange deal." Mr. Mottaki proposed that Iran would agree to initially hand over 25% of its uranium in a simultaneous exchange for an equivalent amount of enriched material in order to fuel the medical research reactor. The remainder of the uranium would be traded over "several years."

In response, The New York Times reported that this proposed timetable was immediately rejected by Western powers. The US government-sponsored Voice of America quoted an unidentified senior US official as claiming that the Iranian counter-proposal was inconsistent with the "fair and balanced" draft agreement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who has previously threatened to "totally obliterate" Iran) urged the Islamic Republic to "accept the agreement as proposed because we are not altering it."

Apparently, the US government is unaware of what a "draft agreement" is. By definition, it is a proposal - a "draft" - not a final, binding accord. It is a primary piece of negotiation that can and should be revised by all parties until a mutually beneficial agreement is reached. The West appears to only accept its own offers and dismisses any other suggestions.

I'm sure there is plenty more to discuss, but I'll leave it here for the time-being.

Thanks again for your response.

- Nima Shirazi



June 7, 2011 - Dr. Muhammad Sahimi, professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at USC, and who is a well-read political analyst and columnist for Tehran Bureau, has provided some additional thoughts on this matter, which are presented below.
I would have addressed the Arak reactor issue as well. The heavy water PLANT is not covered by Iran's Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. And the heavy water REACTOR has not come online and will not for several more years.

The IAEA has been shown its design and conducted several inspections of the facility, but per its Safeguards Agreement, which states clearly that Iran must inform the IAEA of any new nuclear sites "180 days prior to introducing nuclear material into the facility," Iran has no obligation to allow IAEA to inspect anything.

I would have also questioned why a publication that is dedicated to books and literature should publish updates on Iran's nuclear program.


June 17, 2011 - Today, on his New York Review of Books blog, Jeremy Bernstein posted a slightly altered version of his email to me. And this one has a spiffier accompanying photo of the reactor's pool than what he originally used.

What Bernstein omitted from his old-email-cum-new-post was, of course, my response or any acknowledgement whatsoever that we have already corresponded about this very, about this very email, which he wrote two weeks ago but now uses as a new blog.

Thankfully, one of the commenters on Bernstein's post noticed and pointed it out.

What is interesting to note, though, is that Bernstein, in his original email to me (and the others to whom it was also sent), wrote:
"It would take a small book to discuss all the points [Shirazi] brings up and in the end I doubt that it would cause him to change his mind so I thought I would focus on this one paragraph which deals with the Teheran Research Reactor-TRR."
However, this sentence has been ever so slightly tweaked in Bernstein's post today. It now reads (emphasis added):
"It would take a book to discuss all the points he brings up and in the end I doubt that it would cause him to change his mind, but I thought I could start by addressing this one paragraph dealing with the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR)."
From "focus on" to "start by addressing" in a mere 13 days? Does this mean there are more responses to come?



Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your informative pieces and for putting yourself in the frontline of defence of...truth.

I think a quote from the Imam is missing from your "Words of the wiser" column, though.


Thank you very much indeed for your most informative and thorough analysis.

Anonymous said...

Not only was Iran was more than willing to buy the fuel for the TRR, it later even offered to ship its own uranium stockpiles abroad for enrichment under the Brazil-Turkey brokered deal ... until the US pulled the rug out from under Brazil and Turkey by adding a last-minute demand that Iran also end enrichment which was never part of the original bargain (causing a loud and public outcry from the Brazilians and Turks since shortly before, Obama had written a letter endorsing the deal without mentioning any such condition.)