Understanding the Nuclear Challenge and Three Other Security Threats


Akio Matsumura

The way we wage war is changing. Cyber war’s secret infiltrations. The Islamic State’s conquering of vast swaths of land and resources. The UN and the other political entities we developed in the 20th century were not meant to handle such problems and will likely fail to do so. The incremental reforms have not kept up with the pace of changes led by technology and unsatisfied young people. Indeed, these new problems require new approaches. There is a mismatch between the potential consequences of the security problems we face today and the architecture we have to address them.

Four problems loom more menacing than the rest. Each challenges the security architecture on which we’ve depended for 25 years and threatens to spill over into a flood we cannot stem.

  1. Middle East: The region is hitting a low point. Civil War in Syria, expanding war against the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, conflicts between Sunnis and Shias in the region, and nuclear negotiations with Iran.
  2. Pakistan: One neighborhood over, Pakistan has nuclear weapons, tribal conflicts, and a rivalry with India pushed to the brink by state-sponsored terrorism.
  3. Eastern Ukraine: President Putin’s slow creep at the border is getting more dangerous.
  4. China: A huge overinvestment in real estate has left a bubble waiting to collapse. The resulting many ghost towns might cause uprisings and threaten the nation’s stability to a degree we haven’t seen. Especially tightly wound are the autonomous regions of Xinjian and Tibet.

Among the four ongoing conflicts, the potential global risk of the Middle East conflicts is far above the other three cases. The tangle of sectarian struggle, energy security, and wealth means there are many interested parties with much at stake. A good solution has been hard to find. The negotiation for Iran’s nuclear future, due by June 30, will do as much as anything to alter the trajectory of conflict, strength of relationships, and balance of power in the region.

The New York Times Editorial Board wrote in May:

President Obama’s meeting with Arab leaders this week is an opportunity to reassure the deeply skeptical Gulf states that America’s engagement and probable nuclear deal with Iran is not a threat but an opportunity for regional stability. Iran is a Shiite nation; the Gulf states are majority Sunni, and the closer Iran and the big powers get to a deal (the self-imposed deadline is June 30) the more anxious the Sunni leaders have become. On this score, Mr. Obama can offer a convincing response: an Iran restrained by a strong and verifiable nuclear agreement is a lot less threatening than an unfettered Iran.

The importance of a negotiated agreement with Iran remains opaque to many outside observers and casual newspaper readers because of the technology and technical processes involved. How does one get from urainum in the ground to a bomb that deserves the attention of the world? My hope is that by introducing “Why the framework nuclear agreement with Iran is good for both sides,” we can help shed light on some technical aspects of the discussion and give a broader understanding of what is at stake. Dr. Gordon Edwards, a Canadian nuclear expert who often testifies before parliament.

All nuclear weapons require a primary nuclear explosive. There are only two materials that are used for that purpose: either Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) or plutonium of any kind (except plutonium-238).  Highly Enriched Uranium refers to any kind of uranium that has a relatively high percentage (20 percent or more) of uranium-235. Natural uranium -- uranium that is mined from the Earth anywhere in the world -- has only 0.7 percent uranium-235 and 99.3 percent uranium-238. Uranium-238 is not usable as a primary nuclear explosive material. The mix of U-238 and U-235 found in natural uranium is also not nuclear-weapons-usable, because there isn't enough U-235.

Uranium enrichment is a process of gradually removing more and more U-238 from the mix, thereby increasing the concentration of U-235, boosting the percentage of U-235 to 3 percent, or 5 percent, or 20 percent, or 90 percent or more.

Any uranium that is over 90 percent U-235 is called "weapons-grade uranium" and is ideal for making atomic bombs. But in fact any uranium that is over 20 percent U-235 is said to be "highly enriched" HEU and can, in principle, be used to make a nuclear explosive device.

[The uranium fuel for the NRU research reactor at Chalk River is between 19 and 20 percent U-235 -- just below the magic "cut-off" between Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) and Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU). But the NRU reactor also uses weapons-grade uranium "targets" to produce medical isotopes, and is still importing weapons-grade uranium from the USA. In Chalk River Labs has an import licence pending for that very purpose.)

By agreeing to enrich uranium only to 3.7 percent, the Iranians are foregoing the possibility of producing weapons-grade uranium or even weapons-usable uranium. They are also taking 2/3 of their most advanced centrifuges (used for enriching uranium) out of service -- the very centrifuges needed to make HEU.

Plutonium does not exist in nature; it is a uranium derivative that is created inside a nuclear reactor. Specifically, when a uranium-238 atom absorbs a stray neutron inside the reactor it is transmuted into a plutonium-239 atom. Further neutron captures produces other, heavier plutonium isotopes: plutonium-240, -241, -242, et cetera.

All of these reactor-produced plutonium isotopes are usable as a primary nuclear explosive, but the best of the lot (for weapons purposes) is plutonium-239. Any plutonium that has a very high percentage of plutonium-239 is called "weapons-grade plutonium". Nevertheless, all reactor-produced plutonium is perfectly weapons-usable, regardless of the concentration of plutonium-239.

See http://ccnr.org/plute.html . 

To get the plutonium out of the irradiated nuclear fuel requires "reprocessing" technology. Reprocessing involves dissolving the solid nuclear fuel assemblies in boiling nitric acid, producing large volumes of liquid high-level radioactive waste, and then chemically separating the small percentage of plutonium from the liquid solution. Once the plutonium has been re-solidified it can then be used as a very powerful nuclear explosive material.

Heavy Water Reactors
Commercial nuclear power reactors require a nuclear fuel (usually uranium or plutonium) and a substance called a "moderator" to slow down the neutrons so that the nuclear chain reaction can sustain itself. If ordinary water is used as a moderator, the uranium fuel has to be enriched to about 3 to 5 percent U-235. This is called Low Enriched Uranium (LEU).

However if "heavy water" is used instead of ordinary "light water", the uranium fuel does not have to enriched at all. Such a reactor, called a Heavy Water reactor, can run perfectly well on natural uranium. In this way plutonium can be produced without the need for any uranium enrichment whatsoever. That plutonium -- when extracted from the nuclear fuel waste by reprocessing technology -- can then be used as a primary nuclear explosive in nuclear weapons of many different kinds.

By agreeing to forego the pursuit of any reprocessing technology, the Iranians agree not to access the plutonium contained in their irradiated nuclear fuel, thereby making it impossible for them to use that plutonium as a primary nuclear explosive.

In addition, their brand-new Heavy Water Reactor (the Arak reactor) will be modified in design so that it cannot be used to make the ideal kind of plutonium for bomb-making -- the "weapons-grade" plutonium that is exceptionally rich in plutonium-239.

By eliminating the production of HEU, and foregoing reprocessing technology to extract plutonium, Iran effectively closes the door to nuclear weapons of any kind. They cannot produce any material to be used as a primary nuclear explosive.

Unless they smuggle it in from somewhere else, or find a way to produce it clandestinely -- but Iran is also willing to accept far-reaching IAEA surveillance on all their nuclear facilities, including unannounced inspections by IAEA authorities.

Closing Thoughts
By imposing similar requirements on all nations, we could eliminate the production of nuclear weapons altogether. Then, when nuclear weapons are dismantled and the primary nuclear explosive materials are made inaccessible, a nuclear-weapons free world would be within our grasp.

Unfortunately, the countries who are most insistent in pointing an accusatory finger at Iran -- the USA, the UK, Israel, France, and Britain, along with several "silent bystanders" China, Russia, India, and Pakistan -- all have their own stash of nuclear weapons. The message to Iran is, "Do as we say, not as we do." 

World peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons can never be brought about by means of a hypocritical double standard. If nuclear weapons are indeed the greatest existential threat to the continued survival of humanity and other life-forms on this planet, then no one should have them. 

If Iran is willing to forego access to nuclear weapons by making it impossible for them to acquire primary nuclear explosive materials, shouldn't all other nations be willing to do the same? And shouldn't the people of the world insist upon it? 

"The splitting of the atom has changed everything, save man's mode of thinking -- and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." - Albert Einstein

Gordon Edwards.


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