Last week, 20 months of negotiations between 7 different countries came to fruition. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed by the US, China, Russia, UK, France, Germany, and Iran. The Iran Nuclear Deal, as it has been popularized, is a groundbreaking event in diplomacy with one of the most volatile nations in an area of the world that is historically unstable. The JCPOA has many confused about not only the details, but also the general concepts of the plan. I will try to keep jargon low and explained, so that this post will, hopefully, dispel some of the confusion.
Here are some terms for those unfamiliar with the uranium enrichment process:
Isotope – A variant of an element that has a particular mass (number of neutrons + protons). Heavier and odd numbered isotopes tend to be less stable.
Uranium 235 – The uranium isotope that is easily split (fissile) to produce energy. Uranium ore contains 0.7% U-235.
Uranium 238 – A stable uranium isotope that is not fissile and is not used for energy. Uranium ore contains 99.3% U-238.
Plutonium 239 – A fissile byproduct of nuclear reactors
Heavy Water – Water molecules that contain Deuterium, which is a stable isotope of Hydrogen containing an extra neutron, giving it greater mass.
Low Enriched Uranium – Uranium with less than 20% concentration of U-235.
Highly enriched Uranium – Uranium with greater than 20% concentration of U-235.
Uranium Hexafluoride (UF6) – Uranium that is bound to 6 fluorides. This form of Uranium is necessary for enrichment with the gas centrifuges.
Uranium Dioxide – Uranium bonded with two Oxygens. This form of Uranium is packed into fuel rods and used as fuel for nuclear reactors.
Beta decay – A neutron can be seen as a proton and an electron combined. During beta decay, the neutron emits the electron (referred to as a beta particle, hence beta decay), which effectively turns the neutron into a proton, thus changing the element into a new element (one that is immediately after it on the periodic table). For example, if Carbon (#6 on the table) beta decayed, it would become Nitrogen (#7). This occurs in the atmosphere as a part of the Carbon 14 cycle.
The most common thing I’ve heard regarding the deal is that people are uncomfortable with the Iran having nuclear power “now.” This, I assume, stems from a misunderstanding of what the deal was designed to do. The JCPOA doesn’t give Iran anything; Iran has had a nuclear program for years, and has been enriching uranium to amounts that are pushing the boundaries of normal energy usage. The JCPOA will require Iran to do a few things to reduce the chances of them creating a nuclear weapon, which I will explain one by one:
- Reduce their current uranium stockpile by about 96%
- No Uranium enrichment beyond 3.67% for 15 years
- Use only ~ 5000 of the lowest efficiency centrifuges (out of about 19,000) for the next 10 years.
- Redesign the Arak heavy water reactor
- No building heavy water reactors or stockpiling of heavy water for 15 years
- Allow comprehensive and unprecedented international inspections of facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
- Convert the underground Fordow nuclear facility into a nuclear, physics, and technology center where international scientists will also be stationed
- Ship spent fuel to other countries
- In return for the above tenets being met, economically crippling sanctions by the UN, EU, US, and possibly other individual countries, will be lifted.
Let’s start with the first – Stockpile reduction:
This one seems to be an obvious win. Iran has around 20,000 lbs of low enriched uranium (~5% U-235) stockpiled. With this provision in place, they would be reduced to 660 lbs of low enriched uranium on hand. The reduction would be done by either shipping the uranium out of the country or diluting it. Iran also held about 460 lbs of 20% enriched Uranium. Since January, 238.5 lbs of this has been diluted to less than 5% enrichment. A little over a pound was retained by the IAEA for reference, a fraction of a pound was taken by the IAEA for sampling, and the remaining 220 lbs is in the process of being converted into Uranium dioxide, which is used for fuel rods. Research reactors, like the one what Tehran, run on fuel rods with 20% enriched uranium. Iran’s Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant has no process line by which the oxide can be converted back to UF6 to be further enriched.
3.67% enrichment cap:
The percentage of U-235 (enrichment level) in your Uranium says a lot about your intentions. Uranium that is enriched to 3-5% is used in regular nuclear reactors for energy production. Uranium at 20% enrichment is often used for research and production of medical isotopes. Iran claims that it has enriched uranium to 20% in order to supply the Tehran reactor for production of medical isotopes. This is actually not an unreasonable claim. The last shipment of 20% uranium into the country was in 1992 by Argentina. This would last about 20 years at the most, so Iran does need 20% enriched uranium to continue production of medical isotopes that are used in everything from radiation treatment to medical imaging.
Cut in centrifuge use:
The details on the types of centrifuges and their usage are some of the more complex parts of the JCPOA. However, the main points are pretty straightforward. The gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium are a little different than the typical scientific centrifuge. These centrifuges use diffusion of gaseous UF6 (see terms above) to separate the lighter U-235 from the heavier U-238. This process isn’t too efficient, particularly with the old equipment that Iran would be required to use. Successful enrichment, even to 3.67%, requires an assembly line of centrifuges, where the products of one centrifuge becomes the reactants of another. Keep in mind that uranium ore contains less than 1% U-235. Under the JCPOA, Iran would only be allowed to use about 6000 of their almost 20,000 centrifuges. Is this enough to make a bomb? Sure. I suppose 600 would be enough. However, the point is to make is difficult – and overt – for Iran to enrich uranium to weapons grade.
Redesigning the Arak Heavy Water Reactor:
The details on this are vague as of now. Supposedly, the reactor core will be filled with concrete and then redesigned according to UN regulations with the help of international scientists. Claims are that this will help reduce the potential of Plutonium being produced in high quantities. I’m not entirely sure what kind of redesign would significantly reduce this potential, other than the fact that heavy water reactors do not require enriched uranium. Because the water is “heavy,” the reaction process is much more efficient. Heavy water already has extra neutrons, and so it is less likely to absorb the neutrons that are used to split U-235. Thus, your concentration of U-235 doesn’t need to be as high to achieve efficiency. A consequence of low-concentration U-235 is over 99% concentration of U-238. U-238 doesn’t split easily, so it tends to absorb neutrons, which will be in even higher abundance if the water isn’t absorbing them. When U-238 absorbs a neutron, it becomes U-239, which is unstable and beta decays (see terms for info) into Neptunium 239. Neptunium 239 is also unstable, so it beta decays into Plutonium 239, which can be used as fuel in the same way as U-235 if left in the fuel rod. However, Plutonium 239 can be removed as it is created and replaced with more Uranium. This is how Weapons grade Plutonium is stockpiled. Fortunately, this shouldn’t be a difficult thing for IAEA to monitor, as the inspectors will know how much should be present. Much of the success of this deal will fall on how well the inspectors do their jobs.
No stockpiling heavy water or building heavy water reactors for 15 years:
This follows the previous point. Not only will Arak be redesigned, but Iran will not be allowed to build or collect material (heavy water) to build a heavy water reactor for 15 years.
This part of the deal is a bit vague as well. However, it is one of the most important aspects. Iran is essentially on probation right now, and the IAEA is its probation officer. If Iran does anything wrong, sanctions, the levying of which are the main reason Iran is trying to make a deal, will immediately go into effect. It would be counterintuitive for them to break the rules overtly, and should be relatively easy to catch if they try to do so covertly. IAEA inspectors will have the ability to inspect not only current reactors and research (not to mention the monitoring or uranium mining and import), but will also be able to inspect “suspicious” areas. There is an appeals committee, and it could take up to a maximum of 4 weeks if Iran claims the inspection unnecessary. However, let’s be real. The US and the rest of the world’s intelligence will be all over any suspicions of the IAEA inspectors. If it’s happening, especially on any scale that could be dangerous, we will find out. The last thing Iran wants is to be resanctioned and show that it cannot be trusted under any circumstances. Even a bad kid does what’s in his or her best interest.
Converting Fordow into a research center:
Fordow is a heavily fortified, underground nuclear reactor. Under the JCPOA, Iran will not enrich any Uranium at Fordow, will convert it to a research center, and will allow international scientists to be stationed there. So, not only will IAEA have inspection capabilities, but the world will have scientific eyes inside of this facility, further reducing any chances of covert, illegitimate activity.
Shipping off spent fuel:
Spent fuel rods are where you get Plutonium 239, as described previously. Under the JCPOA, Iran will ship spent fuel rods out of the country for the lifetime of the Arak reactor, and will not build a reprocessing facility (necessary to separate out plutonium) for 15 years.
Sanctions will be lifted:
Economic sanctions from the US, EU, and UN, as well as other independent countries, has crippled Iran’s economy. These sanctions include heavily restricted imports and exports on many things, including oil, which is one of Iran’s biggest exports. Additionally, Iran has over $100 billion in frozen assets overseas, and was banned from participating in the international banking system. The economic sanctions crippled Iran for many years, deteriorating the quality of life for citizens as collateral damage. The sanctions will be lifted as Iran continues to show cooperation, allowing Iran to prove to the rest of the world that is can be a legitimate part of world trade.
Iran has been in “prison” the last decade or so. They have been showing good behavior through diluting uranium stockpiles even before last weeks agreement was reached. They are now essentially on probation for 15 years. This can be analogous to a recently released prisoner. You don’t just set them free; they do their time and then you assign them a probation officer – in this case it’s the IAEA. If the person shows good behavior and a willingness to be a contributing member of society, they will be allowed more freedom. This is where Iran is at with the JCPOA. This is why it’s a 15 year deal. Iran has 15 years to prove to the world that they can be a participating country in global interactions. The world will have 15 years to learn about Iran’s capabilities and prepare in the event that they break their probation. But, just as a prisoner wants nothing more than to avoid going back to prison, Iran wants nothing more than to avoid sanctions. This deal gives us a chance to form a somewhat diplomatic relationship with a country that, in the past, has been difficult to negotiate with. ISIS is also one of Iran’s biggest enemies, and this diplomatic relationship might help curtail them, but that is a topic for another post. Will this fix all the problems in the Middle East? No. Is Iran our ally now? Absolutely not. Ultimately, this deal lowers the chance of Iran creating a nuclear bomb, gives them a chance to demonstrate their ability to cooperate and participate in global affairs, and is a step closer to stabilizing the Middle East.
For those of you who are still wanting to use military action against Iran (because the West’s military interventions in the Middle East have been SO successful in the past) instead of trying diplomacy first, please read the document in the link below. It is an assessment of the pros and cons of military intervention in Iran by one of the most well regarded and respected think tank organizations in the world.