A Nuclear Iran: Bombs or Power Plants?

Iran Map

Iran Map: Image by Robbot

Iran has become the topic of conversation, particularly during deliberations by the IAEA, or International Atomic Energy Agency. The global question is: What are Iran’s nuclear ambitions? The story plays out like a mystery with a perpetrator: Iran, a heroine: the IAEA, and a secret so horrible that the world may pay: a bomb.

Current deliberations at the IAEA concern the unresolved issues about the Iranian nuclear program, and what the Iranians are planning to do with their enrichment facilities and Uranium 235 (U-235). Enough evidence has been collected to cause the IAEA to take notice, and to urge Iran to comply with their sanctioned safeguards. The concerns are so large that the IAEA has expressed “deep and increasing concern about the unresolved issues regarding the Iranian nuclear program, including those which need to be clarified to exclude the existence of possible military dimensions.

Iran claims that it is not producing weapon-grade U-235, but is just making fuel for their 15 nuclear facilities and nine other locations outside, that need the nuclear material. The IAEA strongly disagrees. There are many signs that something more is happening within Iran, and it goes far beyond the production of nuclear reactor fuel.

Fission

The Fission Process: Image by Pearson Scott Foresman

The Chemistry of Fission

Simply put, the process of nuclear fission means that an atom’s nucleus splits and produces particles and energy which can be used to heat water – this is the principle of nuclear power. The particles, neutrons, can also cause other nucleus splits, eventually producing a self-sustained  chain reaction that splits more nucleus and produces more energy. One material that is used for both power generation and bombs is Uranium. Uranium has 92 protons. Looking at the Periodic Table, it falls into its place, number 92. It is the number of neutrons that determine the isotopes and weight of the element; the majority of Uranium consists of two isotopes: U-238 (92 protons+ 146 neutrons = 238 AMU) and U-235 (92 protons+ 143 neutrons= 235 AMU). U-235 has a high fission probability while U- 238 does not. To promote fission, and therefore energy production, most nuclear plants require approximately 3-5% U-235 in their fuel. Bombs require 85% or higher U-235 or weapons-grade. Natural Uranium ore contains over 99% U- 238 while only .7% U-235. To use for either bombs or power, it must be further enriched.

The Chemistry of a Bomb

The story begins with uranium ore dug from the ground. After being mined, the uranium ore is crushed and ground up producing yellowcake ( U3O8) – this is the form in which uranium is sold. The yellowcake then goes through several processes in enrichment facilities, to produce useable fuel for power production or weapon-grade uranium for bombs.

First, the uranium oxide is converted into uranium hexafluoride,(UF6) which is a gas. Due to the almost identical nature of U- 238 and U- 235, special methods had to be developed to separate them, such as the gas centrifuge. In the gas centrifuge, the UF6 is piped into the centrifuge cylinder. Each cylinder is rotated at high speed, which causes the separation of the two isotopes. The heavier, U-238, goes to the outside while the lighter, U-235, moves to the center of the cylinder. Through repetition of the process, a higher concentration of U-235 is achieved. When the concentration is at 3-5%, it is converted to uranium dioxide (UO2), formed into pellets, and used in nuclear reactor plants. If the process is continued, the concentration of U-235 can reach 85-90%, which makes the uranium weapon-grade, and usable in bombs.

Why Suspect Iran of Wrongdoing?

Gas centrifuge cascade

Gas centrifuge cascade: Image by the US Department of Energy

Iran claims that the highest enrichment they have achieved is 4-5%, a long ways from bomb-ready, but there is much more to this story. Whereas Iran continues to reject the allegations of nuclear weapon development, gathered information does not support this position. Weapon-grade enrichment requires thousands of centrifuges, and a country who has thousands installed, and is building ten more enrichment facilities with thousands more centrifuges, raises concerns.

Information gathered by, or provided to, the IAEA suggests that Iran is developing more sophisticated centrifuge technology for increased enrichment, as well as pursuing development of a design and testing of a nuclear weapon, and procurement of nuclear-related and dual-use equipment. The IAEA maintains that Iran has developed enrichment up to the 20% level of U-235, and has procured goods and services, allegedly from private companies, that may be covering up the real purpose of the supplies. Add to these suspensions  the alleged development of a detonation device, and the picture is becoming a little clearer.

Concerns About Iran’s Nuclear Aspirations

With this evidence, it is no wonder that the IAEA is concerned with the prospect of a Iranian nuclear program that includes a potential of a nuclear bomb. Improved dialogue between the agency and the Iranian government is called for, but the future remains unclear. With Iran showing no sign of backing down on their program, tensions are increasing.

Resources

IAEA. Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nov. 8, 2011. Accessed November 21, 2011.

IAEA. IAEA Board Adopts Resolution on Iran. Accessed November 21, 2011.

Tim Dean.  Uranium enrichment: how to make an atomic bomb. Aug. 22, 2006. Cosmos Magazine. Accessed November 21, 2011.

Atomic Archive. Nuclear Fission Basics. Accessed November 21, 2011

Fredrik Dahl and Sylvia Westall. U.N. nuclear watchdog board rebukes defiant Iran. Nov. 18, 2011. Accessed November 21, 2011.

© Copyright 2011 Judy Haar, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
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  • http://www.decodedscience.com/author/marcia-stone Marcia Stone

    Thank you for this article, it’s the clearest explanation of nuclear bomb making and why Iran is considered a nuclear threat that I’ve read so far.

  • http://www.decodedscience.com/abou/writers/judy-haar-2 Judy Haar

    You are welcome. Glad you enjoyed the article

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  • prowberr

    There is no way to distinguish between the centrifuges which produce uranium based nuclear fuel with those which produce enriched uranium for bombs. They just need to spin longer and more often. The only way to stop Iran having nuclear weapons would be to stop them having nuclear power. So, it is OK for the USA, France, UK, Germany, Finland, Korea, China, India, Pakistan, etc. etc. to have nuclear plant but not Iran. Do I detect a major hypocracy here?

    If we are going to use nuclear power , why can’t we wait for technology using the Thorium cycle, which cannot (as far as I understand) produce fissile material for bomms and in the meantime move to more sustainable energy sources, wind, solar, hydro, ground scource heat pumps and tidal?

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