Inside Intel / Without Fuel, the Reactor Won't Work

The toughest sanctions imposed on Iran are those applied by Russia, which for the past five years has refused to supply nuclear fuel for the Bushehr reactor.

A few days ago Iran announced that it would once again allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to visit the nuclear facility at Araq where a reactor with a 40-megawatt output is being set up. While Iran claims the reactor is designed for research purposes only, several experts have rejected this claim with contempt. Prof. Uzi Even, a former Knesset member who worked at the Dimona nuclear reactor, says that for research purposes only, all that is needed is a small reactor with a power of two megawatts, like the one at Nahal Soreq, which the U.S. gave to Israel in 1960. On the other hand, a 40-megawatt reactor cannot be used for producing electricity - to do so, one needs a reactor with at least 10 times the power. To facilitate understanding: According to past official publications of the governments of Israel and France, the reactor in Dimona has a power of 24 megawatts, and according to foreign publications, Israel has increased that power to 75 megawatts.

Prof. Even estimates that a reactor powered by 20 megawatts can produce one nuclear bomb a year. This means that, theoretically, the reactor in Araq could produce two such bombs every year. The problem is that there is no reactor yet. U.S. and IAEA estimates predict that construction of the reactor at Araq, which will operate on heavy water and will produce plutonium, will be completed only in six to seven years. So what would the IAEA inspectors actually inspect in Araq? They would examine the heavy-water facility the Iranians have put up at the site. Although the facility is supposed to serve the reactor, nuclear experts are finding it difficult to explain why Iran had to build it before the reactor is constructed. "There is no logic to this; I don't understand it," one Israeli nuclear expert said. All this merely adds to the mystery surrounding Iran's nuclear plans.

All kinds of rumors have spread as a result of the fog disseminated by Iran over the nuclear issue. An example is a recent headline in an edition of Yedioth Ahronoth, which said that an Iranian defector, General Ali Reza Asgari (who is apparently being held by the United States), had reported that Iran is trying to achieve production of atomic weapons by secretly enriching uranium through laser beams. But this report has been met with skepticism on the part of scientists.

The system of enriching uranium by means of irradiating the vaporized material with a laser beam was developed by two young Israeli scientists in 1969: Prof. Menahem Levine of Tel Aviv University and Prof. Yeshayahu Nebenzahl. The two wanted to take out a patent on their invention but the state didn't allow them. A few years later, the secret got out, or was leaked, to the United States, and an affiliate of the Exxon energy corporation had set up a facility using the system. Levine and Nebenzahl sued the company in a U.S. court for stealing their invention. During the hearings it transpired that Prof. Amos de-Shalit, a physicist from the Weizmann Institute, had mentioned the system, without thinking, to an American friend.

Exxon, with its battery of lawyers, managed to defeat the Israeli scientists. But the two did not give up. In the 1970s, they sued the Defense Ministry for preventing them from registering the system as a patent. In the end, a compromise was reached and the state paid the inventors financial compensation. To this day, Levine refuses to divulge the amount.

Despite the scientific achievement, the system is not considered particularly profitable. Experiments carried out by various countries that have nuclear programs for military or civilian purposes indicated that it requires hundreds of tons of uranium and costs a fortune. Iran also tried to enrich uranium with a laser beam. The process already began during the reign of the Shah, when American firms were eager to sell Reza Pahlevi all kinds of nuclear technologies, including nuclear reactors, enriched uranium and laser laboratories.

The experiments continued in secret during the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani, who renewed Iran's nuclear program in the 1990s. Their existence was revealed only in the past five years, following the visits of the IAEA supervisors. It can be assumed that Iran did not achieve any breakthrough in applying the system. It is difficult to imagine that what the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, Australia, and, according to foreign publications, Israel did not find to be an applicable means of enriching uranium would be considered practical for the Iranian nuclear program. Levine also admits that his invention is fraught with difficulties. "Even if I were to go and develop nuclear weapons, I would not do so by enriching uranium with a laser," he told Haaretz this week. "There is a tested system that is both cheaper and preferable - enriching uranium through gas centrifuges."

And that is exactly what Iran is doing. For that purpose, it secretly established the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, whose existence was revealed five years ago. Since then it has installed some 2,000 centrifuges at the facility, tried them out (also for enriching uranium to the extent suitable for producing fissionable material for nuclear weapons) and is operating some of them. IAEA inspectors continue to visit Natanz, but Iran keeps putting obstacles in their way. It is clear to everyone that the Iranians' aim is to gain time to obtain the capability to develop nuclear weapons - what Israeli intelligence calls "the technological threshold." This is also why Iran is now ready to renew the IAEA visits at Araq.

The United Nations Security Council has already imposed two rounds of sanctions on Iran: against its nuclear and space institutions, and against several dozen senior officials, including the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who are responsible for the nuclear and missile programs. Although these sanctions bother Iran, they have not prompted a change in its position and it still refuses to suspend uranium enrichment. Iran is much more concerned about the "non-official" sanctions, which have not been declared publicly. For almost a year now, financial institutions, governments and banks in the West and Japan have refused to grant the country the loans it desperately needs to upgrade its old-fashioned oil industry.

But Iran's greatest fear could, perhaps, be the surprising attitude of Russia. It was Russia that completed the establishment of the reactor for producing electricity in Bushehr. The reactor, which has an output of about 1,000 megawatts, cost Iran more than $ 1 billion. But it looks likely to become a white elephant, since Russia refuses to transfer to Iran uranium at a low level of enrichment, which is used as fuel and is intended to start and operate the reactor. For the past five years, Russia has constantly come up with new excuses why it cannot supply the nuclear fuel, despite the written contract between the two countries.

It is clear to all the experts in Israel and abroad that Russia, which is ostensibly an outright supporter of Iran and the country that is obstructing resolutions to impose sanctions on Iran, has taken a strategic decision not to keep to the contract's terms. At least not at this stage. This is a courageous decision, because it means Russia is already suffering an economic loss. The production of the fuel and its long-term storage in its warehouses is costing Russia money. Worse still is that Russia is harming its chances of being awarded new contracts in Iran in the future for building reactors designed to produce electricity.

The Russian message, especially to Europe, is actually as follows: While you are busy talking about sanctions, without causing yourselves harm, we are implementing them and paying a price for it. The reason for Russia's position is that it is truly afraid of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. It is therefore not surprising that Iran has reacted so furiously to Moscow's position and has already voiced threats of revenge, as can be seen from the press clippings of the Middle East Media Research Institute: "It has stabbed us in the back," said Mohammed Nabi Rudaki, of the Iranian parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, while an editorial newspaper of Aftabi Yezdi said, "One cannot expect more from the KGB spies," referring of course to the former KGB colonel, Russian President Vladimir Putin.