Most people are neither interested in nor informed about the minutiae and technical details of Iran's nuclear program, or any nuclear program for that matter. That's perfectly understandable.
When MSNBC host Rachel Maddow opened her show tonight with a lengthy segment on nuclear technology, bomb-making, and the amazing news from Lausanne, Switzerland today, she revealed how one can be interested and yet still uninformed, despite plenty of help from producers and researchers.
Without a doubt, today's historic announcement of an agreed-upon framework for a comprehensive, multilateral deal between Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States) is major news that, for the uninitiated, begs for explanation and analysis if it is to be understood.
Soon after the framework was announced in Lausanne in a joint statement by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the U.S. State Department released a fact sheet of sorts, revealing in far greater detail the various parameters of the proposed deal. This sheet and a number of its demands were subsequently disputed by Zarif himself as "spin."
When Rachel Maddow took to the airwaves on Thursday evening to inform her audience about the details of the framework, a number of glaring errors and omissions infiltrated her script, further demonstrating just how difficult it is to rely on mainstream media for factual content when it comes to Iran and its nuclear program. Maddow's reporting on Iran has long been shoddy, full of inaccuracies, speculation and uninformed editorializing. Unfortunately, though she seemed to try her best, tonight was hardly a break from the past.
And whoever writes Maddow's chyrons only made matters worse.
After explaining to her audience how nuclear bombs are made - thus implicitly conflating Iran's safeguarded nuclear enrichment and energy program with a weapons program (not a good start) - Maddow spoke about the basics of uranium enrichment and plutonium production.
Enriching uranium is "hard to do, and you need a lot of raw material," she said. "It's hard to
enrich uranium all the way to up weapons grade. All the way up to 90 percent plus." Maddow continued:
It's hard to do, but it's not that hard to do. And the nation of Iran has been enriching uranium to 20 percent enrichment for quite a while now.
In the new deal, the new framework of a deal announced with Iran today, Iran says they will stop enriching uranium to 20 percent. They are agreeing, they are hereby agreeing that they will not enrich uranium above 3.67 percent for at least the next 15 years.
Despite what the chyron says, Iran has never made any "highly enriched uranium."
Where to begin?
Setting aside the fact that acquiring the technology and scientific know-how to master the nuclear fuel cycle is actually quite hard and requires years of experiments, experience and expertise (not to mention millions, perhaps billions, of dollars), Maddow whiffs on her first main point.
Iran has not been "enriching uranium to 20 percent enrichment for quite a while now." In fact, at this moment, Iran is not enriching any uranium to levels anywhere close to 20 percent, let alone anything approaching weapons-grade.
For starters, 19.75 percent enriched uranium (what Maddow and others routinely refer to as "20 percent") is low enriched uranium (LEU), not highly enriched uranium. Furthermore, Iran is not - and has never even been accused or suspected of - enriching highly enriched uranium, let alone weapons-grade uranium.
Beginning in February 2010, Iran began enriching uranium to roughly 19.75 percent, in order to provide fuel to its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) that produces radioisotopes needed to diagnose and treat more than 850,000 cancer patients across the country.
A little over two years later, in mid-June 2012, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors nuclear programs worldwide, confirmed that Iran had converted 33 percent of its stockpile of nearly 20 percent enriched uranium to metal fuel plates.
As Peter Jenkins, former British envoy to the IAEA, told Bloomberg News at the time, the conversion is "significant" since "[i]t demonstrates that the 20 percent program is indeed about producing fuel for the TRR and not, as critics have alleged, about moving closer to building nuclear weapons."
"Importantly, uranium in the form of fuel plates cannot easily be converted back into the gaseous form required for further enrichment," explained nuclear expert Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association later that year. "Even though still enriched to 20 percent, it is essentially no longer available for diversion into a military program."
While some analysts argue that reconverting the plates back into usable feedstock for weapons grade enrichment wouldn't be terribly difficult for Iran, the idea that the conversion efforts by Iran are merely the first step in a clever ruse are far-fetched, even for perennial alarmists. Nuclear physicist Yousaf Butt has explained, "This conversion essentially freezes the enrichment level and subtracts from the 'enrichable' gaseous stockpile used in centrifuges. It is not something that a nation hell-bent on weaponization would do."
Over the course of the next year, Iran continued to systematically convert its 19.75 percent UF6 to U3O8 metallic fuel plates for its research reactor, thus effectively precluding the material's further enrichment to weapons-grade and decreasing its accumulating stockpile, thus deliberately reducing the potential threat of proliferation.
All this was done during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Following the election of Hassan Rouhani and the resumption of negotiations, the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the interim agreement reached between Iran and the six world powers in November 2013, included a full suspension of Iranian enrichment to nearly 20 percent. This halt in 19.75 percent LEU was implemented on January 20, 2014.
By July 2014, the IAEA confirmed that, in line with its commitments under the JPOA, Iran had converted or diluted its entire remaining stockpile of nearly 20 percent LEU to either fuel plates or 5 percent LEU.
Thus, today, when Maddow said that Iran has been producing 20 percent LEU "for a while now" but will, under the terms of the new nuclear framework, "will stop enriching uranium to 20 percent," she ignores the facts that Iran only enriched uranium to 19.75 percent for about two and a half years and stopped doing so well over a year ago.
Maddow, continuing her explanation of the framework, said, "Iran in total has about 19,000 centrifuges right now. In this new deal, they have agreed to go down from 19,000 to 6,000. And they agree that the 6,000 can only be the old crappy ones, not the good ones."
If the U.S. State Department fact sheet is correct, this is roughly accurate. But Maddow probably should have pointed out fewer than 10,000 of those installed centrifuges are actually operational. This is a minor point of criticism, for sure.
Iran doesn't have a "plutonium production plant."
Maddow also gave a slightly confused explanation of how plutonium is produced, effectively claiming that spent fuel rods from reactors can either be "reprocessed into plutonium, which can make a nuclear bomb" and also that "[t]here is, however, one other way to get plutonium, and that is with a specific kind of reactor where you don't have to reprocess anything. It just produces plutonium as a byproduct of running that reactor. Iran has built one of those reactors, or at least is in the process of building one of those reactors at a place call Arak."
This isn't right. All nuclear reactors - regardless of configuration - produce plutonium in their spent fuel as a byproduct. Light water reactors (like Bushehr) produce less than heavy water reactors (like Arak), but all plutonium must be first extracted from the spent fuel and reprocessed to weapons grade material.
While Maddow correctly noted that "Iran apparently does not now have the technology or know-how to make plutonium that could be used in a bomb by reprocessing spent fuel from nuclear reactors" and "will not develop it," she said this was a new decision made by Iran under the framework. Actually, Iran has long forgone research and development of any reprocessing capability, as verified repeatedly by the IAEA for years.
This image is not of Iran's Arak reactor. It's actually a test reactor located in Idaho.
After her long intro, Maddow's first guest was Joe Cirincione, head of the Ploughshares Fund. To her credit, Maddow insisted Cirincione correct any mistakes she may have made. While he praised her detailed analysis, he did note that Arak "actually does make plutonium in the fuel rods and it does have to be reprocessed." After more prodding by Maddow, he added, "Every reactor core produces some plutonium in the fuel rods. The original design, they would have been producing about eight kilograms, enough for about two bombs a year. Completely reconfigure the core, less than one kilogram, not enough for a nuclear bomb."
Maddow's willingness to learn and be corrected deserves respect. Not many news hosts in her position would do the same. Hopefully, as she learns more about the Iranian nuclear program, her audience will learn along with her. Unfortunately, minor errors and vague insinuations still carry dangerous consequences as misunderstanding breeds alarmism, especially on this issue.
Getting the facts right is the best way to challenge the nearly-ubiquitous propaganda and hysteria the American public is subjected to on a regular basis. As a comprehensive, final agreement between Iran and the P5+1 takes shape and details are hammered out in the coming months, it'll be even more important to sweat the small stuff.