Islamic Back-Scratching

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Fifteen years
ago – on the eve of the disintegration of the Soviet Union
– Congress authorized financial and technical assistance to
the Russians to help them secure, store and dismantle excess Soviet
nuclear weapons and to peacefully dispose of the excess weapons-grade
materials recovered thereby.

under the 1997 U.S.-Russia Trilateral Agreement with the International
Atomic Energy Agency, we are committed to dispose of our excess
weapons-grade plutonium and to pay the Russians to peacefully dispose
of theirs.

The Russians
intend to dispose of theirs as uranium-plutonium mixed-oxide power
plant fuel (MOX), and to, thereafter, continue making MOX –
under IAEA supervision – using plutonium recovered from "spent

A nuclear fuel
element is typically left in a conventional water-moderated water-cooled
nuclear power plant for four or five years. About 3–5 percent
of a new enriched-uranium fuel element is "fissile" and
will "burn." Additionally, in the "burning"
of fissile-uranium, fissile-plutonium is "bred" from the
non-fissile uranium.

Hence, when
the typical fuel element is removed from the power plant, about
two-thirds of its uranium-plutonium fissile-material (and virtually
all its uranium non-fissile – but "breed-able" –
material) remains "unburned."

Hence, the
spent-fuel element is still worth – as fuel – about two-thirds
as much as was the original fuel element.

Hence, in Europe
and Russia, spent-fuel elements are chemically reprocessed and remaining
uranium-plutonium fissile material – as well as the very large
amount of breed-able uranium – is recovered and incorporated
into new fuel elements.

Since enriched
uranium is needed only for the original uranium fuel-element, the
need for uranium-enrichment services – and for new supplies
of "yellowcake" – will be drastically reduced once
the MOX fuel cycle is fully implemented.

What has all
this got to do with current Israeli and neo-crazy threats to destroy
the Russian-built IAEA Safeguarded nuclear power plant now nearing
completion at Bushehr, Iran? Or to destroy the IAEA Safeguarded
uranium-enrichment facility barely under construction at Natanz,

Well, the rest
of the world – concerned about nuke proliferation – also
concluded long ago that if the Russians are willing to burn up their
weapons-grade plutonium as MOX, then they are willing to help them,
financially and technically.

Even though
MOX is barely cost-effective now, it undoubtedly will be very cost-effective
in another 20 years or so when the world’s current supply of cheap
yellowcake is near exhaustion.

Now, spent
fuel contains appreciable fractions of Pu240 and Pu241. The radioactive
properties of these higher plutonium isotopes are such that, a)
the recovery of the plutonium from the spent fuel, b) the manufacture
of the MOX-fuel elements, and c) the installation of the MOX in
the power plant needs to be well coordinated, with the time interval
between each step essentially minimized.

So, the Russians
intend to build (with international financial assistance) humongous
spent-fuel storage facilities and MOX-fuel fabrication plants. The
Russians will then charge the rest of the world annual fees for
storing their spent fuel and for fabricating new MOX fuel.

The Russians
intend to build several dozen reactors – in Russia and elsewhere
– specifically designed to run efficiently on MOX fuel. Meanwhile,
existing water-moderated water-cooled reactors are already operating
– with relatively modest modifications to the plant and to
operating procedures – on MOX fuel in Russia, Japan and elsewhere.

So, what should
the Iranian mullahs do, if they’re smart?

Forget about
enriching uranium.

Have the Russians
make – before it begins operation – certain modifications
to the Bushehr power plant so that it can use Russian MOX fuel.

But how can
the Iranians be assured of a Russian fuel supply in future?

They can’t.
The Iranians haven’t got anything the Russians need.

But the Iranians
do have something the Pakistanis (and the Indians, and the Chinese)
need. And need badly.

Natural gas.

Now, the Pakistanis
have uranium-enrichment facilities, and for at least the last 15
years have been offering uranium-enrichment services.

IAEA Safeguarded facilities employ efficient super-sonic second-generation

However, the
uranium-enrichment facility the Iranians had been planning to construct
at Natanz will use unreliable much-less efficient first-generation
gas-centrifuges, essentially obtained second-hand from Pakistan.

So, why doesn’t
the Islamic state of Iran cut a deal with the neighboring Islamic
state of Pakistan to obtain from them a guaranteed contingent supply
of enriched uranium in return for a guaranteed supply of Iranian
natural gas?

Well, recall
that Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki did recently meet with
his Pakistani-counterpart "to bolster defense, trade and cultural

They reportedly
focused on the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline,
but at a joint press conference afterwards, Foreign Minister Kasuri
made it clear that nuke-armed Pakistan would oppose any use of force
against Iran’s IAEA Safeguarded nuclear fuel-cycle programs.

2, 2006

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.

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