Highly-Enriched Uranium [HEU]
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prohibits the acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-nulcear weapons states, and limits but does not prohibit non-weapons applications of nuclear materials and technology. One example of such permitted activites is naval nuclear propulsion, such as for merchant ships or icebreakers, and the rather more challenging application to submarines. Subject to some safeguards, development of naval nuclear propulsion is perfectly legal. The trick is that the enrichment level commonly associated with submarine nuclear propulsion - about 90%, in order to prolong core life without refueling - is the same enrichment level as required for nuclear weapons.
For an aspiring nuclear weapon state, uranium enrichment on an industrial scale is the hard part, while nuclear weapon design and fabrication is the easy part. So when one hears of a country, such as Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, or Iran, speaking of naval nuclear propulsion, what they are really talking about it an atomic bomb.
Iran’s Navy commander said 16 April 2020 the force planned to build nuclear-powered submarines capable of operating in international waters for long periods of time amid the growing threats facing the country from the sea. Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi highlighted the capabilities of submarines powered by nuclear reactors compared to the conventional models, saying nuclear propulsion enables the watercraft to stay at high seas for months and rids it of the need for frequent refueling.
He said the plan is in line with the country’s defensive agenda, adding that many countries, including the US, are using nuclear-powered submarines. “It would be negligence on the part of Iran if it fails to consider using submarines with nuclear propulsion,” he said. “Therefore, we are thinking about its.” “This domestic capability exists at the Defense Ministry regarding the production of submarines larger than Fateh and certainly, the developing of submarine propulsion is on the Navy’s agenda,” he added.
AEOI head Ali Akbar Salehi said 18 December 2016 that he had conferred with Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency Yukiya Amano about the development of nuclear propulsion capability for Iran’s marine transportation. Following his meeting with IAEA Dir. Gen. Amano, Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi told reporters that the two sides held talks on various topics, particularly on expansion of bilateral cooperation between Iran and the IAEA.
“Fortunately, the IAEA’s reports since the nuclear deal went into effect have done well in reflecting Iran’s compliance with its commitments under the agreement,” Salehi said. He went on to add that topics on heavy water, enriched uranium and its reserves, Research & Development were also discussed at the Sunday meeting.
“Relations between Iran and the IAEA are very good, and our stress is that the Agency be impartial and not reflect any outside influence in its reports,” Salehi said. “This has been the case so far and for that, we are thankful to Mr. Amano and the IAEA.” Salehi went on to add that Amano will soon hold a meeting with President Rouhani where the two sides will talk in length about Iran-IAEA ties and issues related to the JCPOA.
Salehi also noted that President Rouhani’s directive to the AEOI following the violation of the nuclear deal by the US due to the extension of anti-Iranian sanctions, was discussed with Amano; “I specially conferred with Mr. Amano on the development of nuclear propulsion capability for our marine transportation, about how the development would take place and what our commitments towards the IAEA would be in this regard," he added.
On 13 December 2016 President Rouhani ordered Salehi and Foreign Minister Zarif to prepare a project for development of both reactors for maritime use and fuel production in three months. The move was in response to the extension of anti-Iranian sanctions that was passed by US legislators.
Rouhani gave executive order to Ali Akbar Salehi to carry out the technical requirements to manufacture atomic propeller for ships. 1. Planning for design and construction of nuclear propulsion for ships in cooperation with scientific and research centers. 2. Study to produce fuel for the atomic propulsion in cooperation with scientific and research centers. The president required Salehi to provide him with a report on implementing the executive order in the matter of maximum three months.
Under the JCPOA, Iran is not allowed to enrich uranium above a 3.67 percent purity for 15 years, a level unlikely to be enough to run such vessels. Rouhani's order called for the Iranian scientists to only develop power-supply units for nuclear-powered marine vessels, and there is no suggestion in the letter about enriching uranium to higher levels.
The White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told a recent news briefing that Washington is certain any such nuclear development is going to take place within the framework of Iran's commitments to the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. "The announcement from the Iranians today does not run counter to the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," Earnest said.
Natural uranium contains about 0.7 percent uranium-235, the isotope essential for nuclear weapons, while low-enriched uranium (LEU) as fuel is typically enriched to between 3 and 5 percent uranium-235. Roughly 175 kg of natural uranium is required per kg of highly-enriched uranium [HEU]. About one hundred kilograms of uranium at 20 percent contains 20 kg of U-235. About 20-25 kilograms of HEU is enough for one weapon. Going from natural uranium to HEU requires about 40 times the separative effort needed to go from 20% to around 90% enrichment.
Tehran might enrich some of its growing supply of 20 percent uranium to higher levels of purity. Iran could claim civilian applications for HEU it produced, such as for production of medical isotopes, or for fueling a nuclear powered submarine. Submarine fuel is typically enriched to over 80%, not enough for a bomb, but pretty close to it.
On 12 June 2012 Lieutenant Commander of the Navy for Technical Affairs Rear Admiral Abbas Zamini pointed to the navy's plan to manufacture super heavy nuclear-powered submarines, and stated, "Right now, we are at the initial phases of manufacturing atomic submarines." He noted Iran's astonishing progress in developing and acquiring civilian nuclear technology for various power-generation, agricultural and medical purposes, and said such advancements allow Iran to think of manufacturing nuclear-fueled submarines. He further reminded that using nuclear power to fuel submarines is among the civilian uses of the nuclear technology and all countries are, thus, entitled to the right to make such a use.
Such a submarine project seems highly improbable. The French SNA (Sous-marins nucléaires d'attaque - Nuclear Attack Submarine) Rubis class nuclear submarine was launched in 1988. The Rubis was an elegant design that overcame many of the faults with other nuclear submarines. With a displacement of 2,400 tons they are the most compact nuclear attack submarines to date. The Thyssen TR1700 class of diesel attack submarine, operated by Argentina, had characteristics similar to those of a nuclear submarine. With a surfaced displacement or 2,116 tons and a submerged displacement of 2,264 tons, it was thought by some to have the potential to be modified to use nuclear propulsion, but this project never moved forward. The largest submarines producated in Iran as of 2012 are the Ghadir-class midget submarines, with a displacement (Submerged) of 120 tons. The Iranian Navy's Tareq-class heavy submarines are imported Russia Kilo-class boats.
On 04 June 2012, the Institute for Science and International Security, warned that Iran’s actions at the Fordow plant near Qom possibly suggested plans to make that is highly enriched uranium, well above 20 percent. In June 2011 Iran reported to the IAEA that one hall composed of eight cascades of IR-1 centrifuges would be dedicated to making uranium enriched up to 20 percent. According to a May 2012 report by the Agency, Iran had produced 6,197 kg of UF6 enriched up to 5% U-235 and 145.6 kg of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235 since it began production of such material. Iran's negotiating team in the June 2012 talks in Moscow with the six world powers said that Iran will not discuss 20% enrichment if the other side ignores its nuclear rights.
Medical patients in both the United States and around the world require access to reliable supplies of radioisotopes for use in medical procedures. The term `medical isotope' includes molybdenum-99, iodine-131, xenon-133, and other radioactive materials used to produce a radiopharmaceutical for diagnostic, therapeutic procedures or for research and development.
Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) is used to produce technetium-99m (Tc-99m), a medical isotope that is used in diagnostic medical procedures globally every day. Four of five diagnostic imaging procedures in nuclear medicine use this isotope. Approximately seventy thousand patients undergo scintigraphic tests every day throughout the world, including evaluations of the heart, kidneys, lung, liver, spleen, bones and blood flow. About 70 percent of these tests are performed with technetium-99m for the diagnosis of tumors. After injection into the body, technetium-99m goes to specific disease sites in the body or concentrates in organs such asthe heart. Imaging devices such as PET scanners then pinpoint the exact locations and extent of disease and helpidentify the best treatment. The procedures can also be used to monitor patients’ responses to treatment.
Over the past few years, the supply of the short-lived medical isotope Mo-99 and its daughter product technetium-99m have encountered periods of shortage and unreliability, as Mo-99 is produced in only a few facilities around the world, most of which are reaching the end of their projected life, and none of which are located domestically. Necessary for the production of technetium-99m is its parent isotope molybdenum-99, most of which is produced in just five neutron sources worldwide. With a half-life of 66 hours, molybdenum-99 must be delivered to hospitals on a frequent basis. Today, Mo-99 is produced at aging facilities in Europe, Canada and South Africa, primarily using HEU.
Highly-enriched uranium (HEU) is a weapons-usable material - uranium enriched to include concentration of U-235 above 20 percent. Most of the facilities that currently produce large-scale quantities of Mo-99 use HEU targets in the production process. In February 2009, two companies in the United States (Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Group and Covidien) signed an agreement for the manufacture of molybdenum-99 using an innovative liquid-phase technique involving low-enriched uranium. The technology exists to produce molybdenum-99 from low enriched uranium – South Africa and Australia are currently doing so. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the South Africa Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) announced 06 December 2010 that the first shipment of the medical isotope molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) produced with low enriched uranium (LEU) and approved for patient use had arrived in the United States.
The National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) is working to accelerate the development of a commercial domestic capability to produce Mo-99 without the use of HEU as part of its nuclear nonproliferation mission. At the same time, to further the United States Government’s policy of minimizing the use of HEU in civilian applications, NNSA is working with international, large-scale Mo-99 producers to assist the conversion of existing isotope production facilities from the use of HEU targets to low-enriched uranium (LEU) targets. In conjunction with these ongoing efforts, the United States is working with European isotope producers to ensure a reliable supply of Mo-99, which includes the export of HEU until the facilities can convert to LEU targets.
The United States is committed to eliminating the use of HEU in all civilian applications, including in the production of medical radioisotopes, because of its direct significance for potential use in nuclear weapons, acts of nuclear terrorism, or other malevolent purposes. Today there is wide agreement that civilian use of HEU should be minimized, and the US is working with international partners to eliminate its use in radioisotope production worldwide, consistent with this commitment.
At the April 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, the leaders of 47 countries issued a communiqué and endorsed a work plan that calls for participating states, as appropriate, to collaborate to research and develop new technologies that require neither HEU fuels for reactor operation nor HEU targets for producing medical or other isotopes, and encouraged the use of LEU and other proliferation-resistant technologies and fuels in various commercial applications such as isotope production.
Iran will need 30,000 of its new generation centrifuges to meet domestic fuel demands, far more than the current number, its nuclear chief said 13 April 2014. Ali Akbar Salehi's comments came just days after the latest round of international talks in Vienna aimed at securing a long-term deal over Iran's disputed nuclear program. The capability and number of centrifuges at Tehran's disposal has been a key concern among countries which suspect the Islamic republic's eventual goal is to build an atomic bomb. Iran had nearly 19,000 centrifuges, including 10,000 of the so-called first generation being used to enrich uranium. "If we want to use the Natanz enrichment facility to produce the annual fuel of Bushehr nuclear power plant, we need to build 30,000 new centrifuges," Salehi was quoted by the Fars news agency as saying.
Iran said it completed diluting its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, based on an interim deal struck with world powers last year on its controversial nuclear program. Iran's atomic chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Arabic-language Al Alam television 19 April 2014 that Iran diluted 103 kilograms of uranium on April 12, converting it from 20 percent enriched uranium to 5 percent.
In the aftermath of the assassination in late November 2020 of Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, attributed to Israel, hardliners in Tehran pledged a response and parliament passed a controversial law calling for the production and storage of "at least 120 kilogrammes per year of 20 percent enriched uranium" and to "put an end" to the IAEA inspections intended to check that the country is not developing an atomic bomb.
Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that it intends to produce uranium enriched to up to 20 percent purity, well beyond the threshold set by the 2015 Vienna accord, the UN nuclear watchdog said Friday. "Iran informed the agency of its intention to enrich uranium at a rate of up to 20 percent in its Fordow underground plant, to comply with a law recently passed by the Iranian parliament," an IAEA spokesperson told AFP. The letter dated 31 December 2020 "did not state exactly when this enrichment activity would begin", the spokesperson added.
Iran has the capability to enrich uranium from 40 percent to 60 percent, the semi-official Fars News Agency quoted the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran (AEOI) Behrouz Kamalvandi as saying on 05 January 2020. “Yesterday we started 20 percent enrichment at Fordow [nuclear facility] after 6 years,” Kamalvandi said on Tuesday, adding, “We have the capacity in the nuclear industry to produce at higher levels even 40- 60 percent.”
“Currently, we have 4 tons of substance with 3.5 and 4 percent enrichment and, according to the forecast based on the parliament’s ratification, we will increase our capacity almost to 500 tons per month,” Behrouz told Fars. “This means 6 tons annually and we can say that within a year we will have nearly 10 tons of uranium equal to the capacity prior to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” he added.
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