Saturday, March 7, 2015

Obama’s happy dance with Iran

By Paul Danish
Boulder Weekly
Barack-Obama.49Obama is riding hell-bent for leather toward a nuclear deal with Iran which — if the leaked outlines of it are remotely accurate — will turn the United States into the principal enabler and legitimizer of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The agreement will allow Iran to keep most of its existing nuclear infrastructure, which is approaching the size and scope of the Manhattan Project’s, with America’s blessing — while imposing flaccid limits on the number of uranium enrichment centrifuges it can operate, the amount of enriched uranium it can possess and the level to which it can be enriched. And even these limitations will be phased out after 10 or 15 years.
Before the American people drink Obama’s Kool-Aid they ought to review what happened when a previous Democratic administration — Clinton’s — signed a similar agreement with North Korea.
On Oct. 21, 1994, American nuclear negotiators, who had been haggling with North Korea for years over its nuclear program, broke into their happy dance.
The old Hermit Kingdom had finally put its Kim Il Sung on a document evocatively called the Agreed Framework. The Agreed Framework provided that the Norks would shut down their two nuclear “research” reactors, including a small five-megawatt one fueled by natural uranium (no enrichment needed) that had produced enough plutonium for about 12 bombs during its 18 years of operation.
In exchange, the United States and South Korea agreed to provide North Korea with two 1,000-megawatt light water reactors for generating electric power, which — it was reported and endlessly re-reported at the time — North Korea couldn’t use for plutonium production.
Bang! Just like that — peace in our time, baby.
Well, not exactly.
The object of the exercise was to terminate the North Korean nuclear weapons program by eliminating the country’s ability to produce plutonium (element 94).
But an atomic bomb can also be made out of uranium (element 92) — the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a uranium bomb — but only if the uranium in it contains about 150 times more U-235 (the fissile isotope of uranium) than occurs in natural uranium.
Natural uranium contains six-tenths of a percent (0.6 percent) U-235. The rest is U-238, a non-fissile isotope, but one which is transformed into plutonium when bombarded by neutrons from fissioning U-235.
The process of increasing the U-235 concentration of uranium, called enrichment, requires a massive industrial infrastructure, and is technically very hard, very energy intensive and very expensive. So the plutonium route to nuclear weapons is the preferred one.
Since the north’s weapons program was based entirely on building bombs from plutonium, the Clinton administration negotiators evidently assumed that uranium enrichment was beyond the financial, engineering and industrial resources of the North Koreans. Bad guess.
In October 2002, it emerged that North Korea had developed a clandestine enriched uranium production program alongside its plutonium production program.
In short, the North Koreans played us for fools. While we were shutting down their plutonium bomb program, they were cranking up a uranium bomb program.
It gets worse.
Remember those two light water reactors we were supposed to give the Norks for shutting down their plutonium production? The ones that North Korea absolutely, positively could not use to produce plutonium?
The reactors most certainly could be used to produce plutonium. In fact, they couldn’t be operated without producing plutonium. Plutonium production is the inevitable by-product of the operation of any nuclear reactor in which the uranium isotopes U-235 and U-238 are present — which is all of them.
The reason it was claimed that North Korea couldn’t use the light water reactors to produce plutonium was not because it was physically impossible, but because the light water reactors used “enriched” uranium as their fuel — which the Clinton negotiators assumed the North Koreans couldn’t produce. They assumed the North Koreans would be dependent on the West for reactor fuel and wouldn’t be able to divert spent fuel rods and extract the plutonium from them, because the West would cut them off if they tried it.
But North Korea’s clandestine enrichment program changed the rules of the game.
Not only did it give North Korea the capacity to build a uranium bomb, it offered a way to clandestinely boost its plutonium production as well.
North Korea wouldn’t have to enrich uranium to bomb grade (85 percent to 92 percent U-235) to leverage its uranium enrichment program into a nuclear arsenal. Instead they could enrich uranium to reactor grade (3.5 percent to 5 percent U-235), and fabricate its own fuel rods for the light water reactors it was due to get from the U.S. and South Korea — and then extract the plutonium from its spent domestically produced fuel rods. Presto! The Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear genie is out of the bottle — and the Great Satan doesn’t even get three wishes.
Not long after the clandestine enrichment program came to light, the Agreed Framework imploded. The U.S. and South Korea cancelled construction of the light water reactors and North Korea resumed using its old reactor to make plutonium. It also continued enriching uranium.
Today, North Korea is an announced nuclear power.
Obama’s putative peace-in-our-time nuclear deal with Iran has the smell of the North Korean nuclear deal. This time the emphasis is being put on limiting, not even dismantling, Iran’s enrichment program; virtually nothing is being said about the possibility of Iran having a clandestine plutonium bomb program.
Could Obama’s negotiators really fail to miss this possibility? Yes they could, because when the boss is as hot to get a deal as Obama is you tend to overlook stuff that could queer it.
Like the possibility that the guys you’re negotiating with don’t really want the deal and intend to cheat if they have to sign it.
And like the possibility that the reason the guys you’re signing the deal with have been chanting Death to America since 1979 is that they mean it.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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