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Sunday, January 03, 2010

How to call Iran's bluff

The impasse that exists today between Iran and the rest of the world can be summed up in the following two points:

A)  Iran claims it needs a nuclear program for peaceful purposes; specifically for the production of electricity.

B)   The rest of the world is deeply worried because one of the byproducts of a peaceful nuclear program - spent nuclear fuel  - contains material which can be used as the building blocks for a nuclear weapons program.

Let's forget for a moment that Iran is sitting on one of the world's largest supplies of natural gas, a clean, easily handled fuel that comes out of the ground ready to use (i.e. it requires little or refinement) and could keep the lights on in Iran (and in all of her neighboring countries) for thousands of years using 19th century technology.

The crux of the issue is one of trust.  Iran is basically saying that they have a right to produce electricity using nuclear energy if they so choose.  It is a matter of pride for a developing country to be able to use a more sophisticated source of energy if they are able. 

Think how you would feel if you could afford a nice Viking stove and chef-worthy assortment of tin-lined copper pans... but you were told that you had to do all your cooking in aluminum pans on a cheap two burner range and a glorified toaster oven. 

Obviously this is a hopelessly flawed analogy since, other than killing them with envy, you couldn't threaten your neighbors with your Viking stove.  But if Iran is indeed interested in peaceful nuclear energy and has the technological and financial means to manage it, the world's refusal probably feels a bit like the kitchen scenario I've described.  Why should they be forced to use Victorian era Steam-Punk gear when they can afford and manage the space-age stuff?

The big sticking point is that the world has no way of knowing - until it's too late, of course - if Iran's nuclear aspirations are entirely peaceful.  Once the genie is out of the bottle and Iran has enough fuel for a couple of bombs, there is no going back.  See North Korea for an excellent example of genies that will never go anywhere near their bottles again.

Up until this past week I honestly thought this problem lacked a solution (other than a military one, of course). 

And then I read an article in Wired Magazine that made me slap my forehead and wonder aloud what the hell is wrong with the world that they haven't figured out the obvious way to call Iran's bluff:

Thorium.

For those who are unfamiliar with Thorium, I strongly suggest you read this article and peruse the Wikipedia page on the subject.  I'll wait.

Pretty impressive, huh?  Simply put, Thorium is an alternative nuclear fuel that has the following advantages over Uranium:

  1. It is much less radioactive (and therefore easier to handle) than Uranium.
  2. It doesn't require nearly as much processing as Uranium to make it ready for use, and needs no enrichment.
  3. It is far more abundant in nature than Uranium (4-5 times, by most estimates, and fairly equally dispersed around the globe).
  4. Spent Thorium fuel is safer to handle and needs to be stored for only a few hundred years after use rather than several hundred thousand years as with our current spent nuclear fuel.
  5. It lends itself to a type of reactor that is far safer to operate (i.e. much less prone to meltdown). 
  6. Spent fuel from a Thorium reactor is unsuitable for producing nuclear weapons.

So the question most of you are probably asking is, 'why isn't everyone using Thorium instead of Uranium in their nuclear power programs?' 

And the answer is simple: 

100% of the countries which have nuclear energy programs either have nuclear weapons programs or have agreements to sell/transfer their spent nuclear fuel to countries that do.  Thorium was looked at during the cold war era, but discarded for the simple reason that it couldn't supply the basic ingredient required for building the bomb.

India is the only country that is seriously studying Thorium as an alternative nuclear fuel at this point in time.  But it seems to me that the obvious way to call Iran's bluff on whether their nuclear aspirations are 100% peaceful is to tell them to prove it by building Thorium reactors rather than Uranium ones.

This is such a no-brainer that I can't believe nobody has thought of this before.

Posted by David Bogner on January 3, 2010 | Permalink

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Very interesting. It seems that other countries could develop thornium energy, albeit for different reasons.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Jan 3, 2010 11:06:16 AM

1. Natural gas does require some processing, see this article for a description.

2. Iran should be willing to trade away it's uranium for thorium, but it is running out of uranium, anyway.

3. Public information shows the program is for weapons. Look up the Sajjil and Shahab ballistic missiles. They are only useful for WMDs. Some of them have steerable re-entry warheads to avoid anti-missiles.

4. Once it's clear the program is for weapons, it doesn't make sense to try to prove it; There isn't anybody in a leadership position who thinks Iran's program is not for weapons, so there is nobody to convince.

Posted by: Fred2 | Jan 3, 2010 1:23:58 PM

The Wikipedia article points out that Thorium reactors produce Uranium-233, which can easily be used in a simple atomic bomb. Maybe there is a way around this with inspection. Big reactors are hard to hide.

Posted by: Fred2 | Jan 3, 2010 1:33:21 PM

And the point of proving that Iran's real objective is the building of bombs is ... ? Successfully calling Iran's bluff would change nothing. Iran would still be bent on Israel's nuclear annihilation and the West would still dither as the boxcars rolled into Auschwitz.

Posted by: Bob | Jan 3, 2010 5:35:25 PM

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