Caramel: The 7.5% Solution to Iran’s 60% Uranium Enrichment Threat

PressTV yesterday carried a threat from an Iranian lawmaker (and Reuters also reports the threat) that should the current round of P5+1 talks on Iran’s nuclear technology break down, Iran would begin enriching uranium to 60% in order to produce fuel for a nuclear-powered submarine. The state of Iran’s submarine technology suggests that this is mostly an idle threat, but there is a very easy route for the P5+1 group to diffuse the threat before it becomes a “red line” issue. France, a member of the P5+1 group, has a new generation of nuclear reactors for submarines that relies on a fuel known as “caramel”, which is only enriched to 7.5% uranium. Providing one of these reactors to Iran would allow them to power a submarine with nuclear fuel without having to enrich to weapons grade or near weapons grade.

The US Office of Naval Intelligence tells us (pdf) that Iran is the only nation near the Persian Gulf possessing submarines. However, the submarine fleet is meager and mostly composed of very small vessels. From the Nuclear Threat Initiative:

Iran’s submarine force currently consists of three Russian Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines (Tareq 901, Noor 902, Yunes 903), one 350-400-ton Nahang and an expanding force of roughly a dozen 120-ton Ghadir-class midget submarines.

/snip/

The three Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines, called Tareq-class in Iran, were commissioned from 1992 to 1996. Iran allegedly paid USD600 million for each boat and they are all based at Bandar Abbas in the Straits of Hormuz (Tehran is reportedly contemplating the relocation of its submarines from the shallow waters of Bandar Abbas to naval facilities in deeper waters at Chah Bahar in the Gulf of Oman). [12] Two of the Kilo-class submarines are operational at any one time and they are occasionally deployed in the eastern mouth of the Straits, the Gulf of Oman or the Arabian Sea.[13] Their utility in the Persian Gulf is, however, somewhat limited as Kilo-class boats require a depth of at least 164 feet and can therefore only access about one third of the Gulf.[14] Unique water conditions (water salinity and strong currents) in the Gulf further limit the boats’ operational use unless the submarines are deployed to deeper waters in the Gulf of Oman or the Arabian Sea.[15]

Only the kilo-class submarines, which Iran does not manufacture, are large enough to be powered by a nuclear reactor. And NTI tells us that a retrofit of one of the Russian kilo-class vessels would be the likely home of a nuclear reactor, but Iran does not have the technology for the reactor itself:

In June 2012, an Iranian official asserted that scientists were “at the initial phases of manufacturing atomic submarines.”[24] He claimed Iran’s success in retrofitting one of the imported Kilo-class submarines (after Russia had declined to do so), as evidence of the country’s advancing submarine development capability, despite delays.[25] However, outside analysts stressed that manufacturing a nuclear reactor for use in submarines would be beyond Iran’s current capabilities, suggesting that the announcement may be meant as leverage in negotiations with the P5+1, or as an excuse to continue enriching uranium.[26]

It would appear, then, that Iran is threatening to enrich uranium to a level appropriate for a nuclear submarine at a time when the only submarine it could put the reactor into is one purchased from Russia and then retrofitted. However, Iran also does not yet have the technology to build the reactor itself.

The suggestion that they would enrich to 60% uranium for a submarine reactor is a very strange target level for enrichment, as 60% doesn’t line up with any of the known reactors used in submarines. The World Nuclear Organization describes the various submarine reactor technologies now in use:

they deliver a lot of power from a very small volume and therefore run on highly-enriched uranium (>20% U-235, originally c 97% but apparently now 93% in latest US submarines, c 20-25% in some western vessels, 20% in the first and second generation Russian reactors (1957-81)*, then 21% to 45% in 3rd generation Russian units, 40% in India’s Arihant).

Iran’s stated target of 60% enrichment is higher than the Russian technologies that would use 20% or 40% enriched uranium and much lower than the US technologies that rely on weapons grade uranium enriched to over 90%. How did Iran choose the 60% number?

Setting aside the mysterious target of 60%, there is further information from the World Nuclear Organization that suggests a way around the issue of further enrichment if Iran really wants a nuclear-powered submarine:

However, the enrichment level for newer French naval fuel has been dropped to 7.5% U-235, the fuel being known as ‘caramel’, which needs to be changed every ten years or so. This avoids the need for a specific military enrichment line, and some reactors will be smaller versions of those on the Charles de Gaulle.

Since France is a member of the P5+1 group, it seems that they could offer a reactor that runs on caramel to Iran so that they can power a submarine with fuel enriched only to 7.5%, removing the reason to enrich beyond their current maximum 20% level for production of medical isotopes. Alternatively, Russia (also a P5+1 member) could provide access to their submarine reactor technology that relies on 20% enrichment, which is also within Iran’s current enrichment capability.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
5 replies
  1. What Constitution says:

    Looks like we’re just gonna have to bomb ’em. Again/still. Although your penchant for applying logic and reason is cute, albeit cosmically trite in this corner of the galaxy, and you get full points for this display of actual thought in an area so noted for its complete absence. Thank you, once again, for trying. What is it they say about “falling on deaf ears”?

  2. person1597 says:

    If Iran’s domestic uranium industry can enrich above 20% using carbon fiber rotors instead of maraging steel rotors then they have solved an important problem with molybdenum contamination.

    Although the designing and initial manufacturing of carbon fiber rotors is more difficult than maraging steel rotors, the manufacturing equipment for carbon fiber rotors is significantly less expensive, and the manufacturing process is easier once the technique is mastered.

    If the goal is to produce HEU (by sacrificing carbon fiber rotors to capture the contaminants) then a low yield fission device may be well within reach before 2020. Sooner, if they develop inter-stage chemical decontamination.

    Secret decontamination technology would indicate a push for a higher initial test yield. Even so, short of a full scale conflict against such a proliferating country, political calculations regarding deployment would be uncertain.

  3. greengiant says:

    @person1597: And the political calculations of a full scale conflict would be certain bankruptcy, defeat, and regime change of the invading parties?
    Maybe it’s not just about the oil or Palestine.

  4. Cheryl Rofer says:

    One of the things that the P5+1 has offered Iran is a retrofit to their research reactor so that it uses 3.5% enriched uranium rather than 19.75%. This is consistent with retrofits of research reactors across the globe by the US and Russia.

    The comment about going to 60% is obviously one more attempt to ratchet up the ante on Iran’s side. Gareth Porter has talked a lot about Iran’s trying to develop negotiating leverage, and this is likely one more move in that direction.

    The problem with that, of course, is that outside Iran, those moves can be taken in more than one way. And, given the dearth of Iranian nuclear submarines, this move is more transparent than the others.

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