Iran’s nuclear weapons program has become steadily more serious in the last few months but a new danger of reactor sales to neighbouring Arab countries is drawing little criticism because it benefits the West. Western corporations, with support from their governments, are rapidly concluding deals to sell nuclear reactors to Arab countries.
This represents a dangerous trend given the Middle East’s high level of terrorism, Islamic and personal dictatorships, frequent inter-country warfare and the dual-use nature of reactor technology. Dual-use means that the seemingly peaceful reactor technology, knowledge and plutonium by-product of reactor operations can form some essential preliminaries for a nuclear weapons program. Nevertheless, Western governments and nuclear reactor corporations see the high risk Middle East as an acceptable place to sell - worth the risk for everybody. Given the long history of the West selling weapons in the region perhaps reactor sales are not so surprising.
Looking first at Iran: various diplomatic formulas are currently being pursued to pressure Iran to reduce its capacity to further develop its weapons program. Ever present trade sanctions on Iran have been jacked up, inspections and surveillance maintained, while discussions of complex uranium swap arrangements have continued without agreement. All these measures have made little impact on the Iranian government’s resolve. Western encouragement of the pro-democracy movement in Iran might prove to be the most effective way to unseat the pro-nuclear weapon hawks in the Iranian government.
Iran’s development of enrichment facilities has been a major concern for the West. Uranium enrichment is recognised as the most difficult part of the nuclear weapon making process for an emerging weapons country. Current nuclear weapons countries have frequently claimed their uranium enrichment plants for weapons purposes are actually for peaceful purposes only. Iran’s civilian program includes the fully declared uranium enrichment plant at Natanz which has a large enough capacity (50,000 centrifuges when completed) to supply Iran’s current reactor needs. Natanz can enrich uranium to 5 per cent for peaceful use and technically could further enrich it up to the 90 per cent purity necessary for nuclear weapons. In practice International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and round the clock surveillance only permit enrichment to around 5 per cent.
What is disturbing is the discovery that Iran, for the last three years, has been busy building a new enrichment plant in secret, probably to avoid the international restrictions placed on Natanz and because the plant, unlike Natanz, is generally considered impervious to long expected Israeli-US airstrikes. This plant is buried deep within a mountain at Fardow within an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Base near the city of Qom (hence it is usually called the “Qom plant”). Iran only declared the Qom plant in late September 2009.
It is highly significant that IAEA inspections indicate that Qom only has the capacity to provide for one 90th of Iran's nuclear power per year, however Qom has also been assessed as having the capacity to produce one or two nuclear weapons per year. The information about the Qom plant strongly points to a covert weapon’s purpose rather than an economical and peaceful purpose.
Concern in Israel and Washington over Iran’s expanding nuclear enrichment capability must have further deepened due to Iranian announcements from late November 2009 that it would build ten more plants like Qom from January 2010 to provide Iran’s program greater survivability. Five sites have apparently been finalised.
Naturally no pressure is exerted on the completed nuclear weapons program arsenal of one regional country, that is Israel, reportedly with up to 400 thermonuclear weapons courtesy of French, British and US financial and technical assistance over the years.
Iran’s activities have attracted the full weight of US diplomatic pressure and many veiled nuclear Israeli threats, however, Iran can increasingly point to other Middle Eastern countries that are also proposing to build extensive nuclear facilities - all with dual-use potential. Iran would argue that it should therefore not be held out to be a rogue state. A current difference, though, is that the other Middle Eastern countries do not intend to build enrichment plants, while Iran now has two such plants.
Outside of Israel and Iran the most important example of Middle Eastern nuclear reactor proliferation concerns a contract made last month with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). On December 27, 2009 the UAE concluded a deal worth US$40 billion with a South Korean consortium (along with Westinghouse and Toshiba) to build ($20 billion) and also operate (another $20 billion) four nuclear reactors - to be in operation by 2020. Significantly the contract includes extensive training of local staff to operate the reactors.
It may be relevant that a major portion of the “local” UAE reactor staff would likely come from India and Pakistan, both nuclear weapons countries. Of the UAE population of six million only slightly more than a million are UAE citizens but three million are guest or contract workers from India and Pakistan. The prospect of weapons-experienced Indian and Pakistani engineers working in the UAE nuclear reactor program may provide the UAE with an eventual nuclear weapons development path. Weapons engineers from other nuclear countries, such as France, could also be lured by the high wages paid to expatriates.
The UAE deal may have received the most press but many other reactors for Middle East countries are on the way. Uranium Investing News December 31, 2009 reported:
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