While Western media routinely proclaim the danger of Iran enriching uranium to 20% since it is “just a few short steps” from the 90%+ enrichment needed for producing nuclear weapons, what is often overlooked is the role that Western sanctions on Iran play in forcing Iran to carry out this 20% enrichment. Iran treats 850,000 patients a year with medical radioisotopes and has only a 40 year old research reactor in Tehran for producing isotopes. Despite attempts by neocons to claim that the sanctions have exceptions for humanitarian goods, the reality is that the sanctions forced Iran to produce new fuel for the Tehran reactor and we see today a mention in the Iranian press suggesting that four new research reactors are planned so that Iran can produce more radiomedicines domestically.
Here is how the medical isotope situation was described by Thomas Erdbrink three years ago:
The impending shortage of technetium-99 is caused by the controversy surrounding the Iranian nuclear program. The sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, aimed at moving Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program, are supposed to leave medical practice unaffected. In reality, however, Iran has become unable to procure a wide range of medical products. Body scanners cannot be imported from the US or the EU, since parts in these machines could also be useful to Iran’s nuclear program. An embargo on medical isotopes was introduced in 2007, in defiance of the medical exception clause touted as part of the trade sanctions, Iranian leaders said.
Isotopes are a rare commodity produced at only five sites worldwide. One of these, the High Flux Reactor in the Dutch town of Petten, currently accounts for 30 to 40 percent of worldwide production, but it is scheduled for retirement soon. Apart from the UN sanctions, so many restrictions — particularly American — on trade with Iran exist, that in practice nobody is willing to supply Iran with medical isotopes any longer.
Out of dire necessity, Iran now uses its 41-year-old research reactor in Tehran — originally constructed by the US — exclusively for isotope production, a job which used to take only a day a week. However, the reactor’s fuel, provided by Argentina in 1993, is quickly running out, the scientists said.
The situation had not improved by late 2010:
Iran imports some ready-made isotopes, but it has faced greater restrictions under UN sanctions and has to pay higher prices to get them. Sanctions do not directly ban the sale to Iran of medical equipment, but they make foreign producers more reluctant to provide it, and those who will sell it do so at inflated prices.
“We are paying twice the value of this product to import it from Turkey,” said Mohammad Reza Ramezani, an official at Shariati Hospital, pointing to a cargo of technetium-99, the most common radioisotope used in diagnosis, that arrived from Turkey at day earlier.
Iran did indeed embark on its plan to enrich to 20% and has converted a significant portion of that 20% enriched uranium to fuel plates for the Tehran reactor, a move that leaves the uranium more difficult to subject to further enrichment to weapons grade. However, many have noted that Iran now has produced much more fuel than would be needed in the near future by the Tehran reactor and yet enrichment to 20% continues. At the end of a story carried today by Fars News Agency praising Iran’s accomplishments in nuclear technology, though, we see that Iran now plans additional research reactors. It appears that these reactors will supply material for more domestically produced radiomedicines: Continue reading
In a move that is sure to disappoint war hawks who have been convinced that Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20% has been to produce material for further enrichment to the 90%+ needed for nuclear weapons, Iran today very publicly had President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad load the first domestically produced nuclear fuel plates (which use 20% enriched uranium) into the Tehran reactor which is used to produce medically useful radioisotopes. From Mehr News:
The Tehran reactor was loaded with domestically produced nuclear fuel plates during a ceremony held on Wednesday to unveil Iran’s latest nuclear achievements.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Director Fereydoun Abbasi, presidential aide Mojtaba Hashemi-Samareh, the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to Iran, and a number of other foreign diplomats attended the event.
During the ceremony, a number of domestically produced radioisotopes, which are used for the treatment cancer, were also unveiled.
The same article also noted that Iran has increased its capacity for low-grade enrichment to 3.5%:
On Wednesday, the first cascade of a new generation of centrifuges was also installed at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility and was brought on line.
With the installation of the new centrifuges, the capacity of the facility for the production of 3.5 percent enriched uranium was increased by 50 percent.
Further frustrating those who want to say Iran is moving rapidly toward construction of a nuclear weapon, Iran also took the next formal steps toward re-establishment of the Group 5 + 1 negotiations on nuclear technology:
Iran’s chief negotiator and Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Saeed Jalili sent a reply to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s letter about talks between Tehran and the six world powers, and welcomed resumption of negotiations between the two sides.
According to the secretariat of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, in the letter which was delivered to Ashton’s office on Wednesday, Jalili welcomed the readiness of the Group 5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members – Russia, China, Britain, France and the US plus Germany) to resume talks with Iran.
The Iranian chief negotiator underlined in his letter that returning to the negotiation table would be the best means to broaden cooperation between the two sides.
Despite the fear-mongering over Iran developing a nuclear weapon, Iran provided its alternate explanation yet again for why it had to produce its own 20% enriched uranium for the Tehran reactor:
After Iran announced to the IAEA that it had run out of nuclear fuel for its research reactor in Tehran, the Agency proposed a deal according to which Iran would send 3.5%-enriched uranium and receive 20-percent-enriched uranium from potential suppliers in return, all through the UN nuclear watchdog agency.
The proposal was first introduced on October 1, 2010, when Iranian representatives and diplomats from the Group 5+1 held high-level talks in Geneva.
But France and the United States, as potential suppliers, stalled the talks soon after the start. They offered a deal which would keep Tehran waiting for months before it could obtain the fuel, a luxury of time that Iran could afford as it was about to run out of 20-percent-enriched uranium.
Stay tuned for further developments to see how Iran’s use of a large portion of its 20% enriched uranium in the Tehran reactor will still result in their being described as on the fast track to a weapon by those who want a war there.