week, Undersecretary John Bolton will demand that the Board of Governors
of the International Atomic Energy Agency refer to the U.N. Security
Council for possible punishment the "failure" of Iran
to promptly disclose its production – during experiments conducted
at Lashkar Ab’ad between October 2002 and January 2003 – of
milligram quantities of enriched uranium.
all no-nuke signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
are required to promptly make all their "nuclear materials"
– which includes uranium, however much enriched, of whatever
quantity – subject to an IAEA Safeguards Agreement.
year, in the process of negotiating an Additional Protocol to their
existing agreement, Iran not only told the IAEA about their attempts
to enrich uranium via the Atomic Vapor Laser Isotope Separation
process, but showed them the AVLIS equipment, which they have essentially
was a top-secret high-tech candidate to replace the low-tech gaseous
diffusion process, developed during WWII, by which all our enriched
uranium – for power reactors or for nuclear weapons –
has to be "enriched" because only seven-tenths of one
percent of the atoms contained in natural uranium are "fissile."
Most power reactors require about 3 percent of those atoms to be
fissile, and our uranium nukes require at least 90 percent.
in the gaseous diffusion process, uranium-hexaflouride gas under
extremely high pressure is forced through hundreds and hundreds
of virtually opaque filters – which are slightly less opaque
to the smaller fissile atoms – the output from one filter being
recompressed and used as input to the next.
takes an enormous amount of electricity to run those compressors,
so uranium-enrichment by gaseous diffusion is enormously expensive.
In the rest of the world, most uranium is enriched by the gas-centrifuge
process. In a gas centrifuge, the unwanted non-fissile atoms are
almost literally "thrown" out. It still takes thousands
of centrifuges – the output of one being the input for the
next – to achieve the required enrichment, but the process
requires about a tenth the electricity.
spent more than $3 billion developing centrifuge technology, building
and testing thousands of centrifuges. But we never built a commercial-scale
the Europeans did, and so did the Russians.
never really needed one. We haven’t produced any weapons-grade enriched
uranium for many years. In fact, in 1998, all our uranium-enrichment
facilities were turned over to the private sector U.S. Enrichment
intended to develop a commercial-scale Uranium-AVLIS process for
AVLIS process exploits the small differences in energies between
the characteristic excited states of different isotopes of the same
atom. The energy output of a powerful pulsed laser can be precisely
"tuned" so as to selectively ionize the U-235 isotope.
The positively charged U-235 ions can then be electromagnetically
separated from the other un-ionized uranium isotopes.
spent billions developing the AVLIS technology, building a pilot-plant
at Lawrence Livermore National Lab that operated more or less successfully
for about 18 months. However, in 1999 the entire program was "suspended"
because of "technological problems encountered during test
runs of the pilot-plant," and estimates were it would take
another $2.5 billion to build a commercial-scale plant for USEC
that could not be ready for operation until 2007.
laboratories around the world have – or have had – AVLIS
research programs, but there doesn’t seem to be – as yet –
a commercial-scale competitor to the gas-centrifuge for uranium
enrichment. There is some reason to believe the Russians have employed
AVLIS-related technology to remove the unwanted plutonium isotopes
from weapons-grade plutonium.
imagine how ecstatic Bolton was when the IAEA told him that Iran
had told them they acquired an AVLIS system, had made milligram
quantities of low-enriched uranium and hadn’t reported it at the
then last week came the terrible news. The South Korean Science
and Technology Ministry informed the IAEA that during the same time
period, five South Korean scientists – all of whom received
their doctorates in the United States – had also made milligram
quantities of low-enriched uranium using high-power lasers and related
equipment before relegating it to the scrap heap. They hadn’t told
the IAEA because – like the Iranians – they didn’t think
milligram quantities of LEU needed to be reported.
the IAEA Board will have to decide what to do about Iran and South
well, if Bush has to treat South Korea the same way he intends to
treat Iran, at least he won’t have to invade them. We already have
37,000 troops stationed there.
James Gordon Prather [send
him mail] has served as a policy implementing official for national
security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency,
the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department
of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department
of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for
national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. –
ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the
Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather
had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory
in New Mexico.