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Iran moves closer to nuclear threat

Cutler Cleveland on the dangers of Iranian defiance

Reprocessing of nuclear fuel in the wrong hands could have atomic consequences, says Cutler Cleveland. BU Photo services

On Monday, February 13, Iran announced that it would defy a vote by the United Nations National Security Council and resume some work on uranium enrichment. At the same time, Tehran said it had put off talks with Russia that might have led to an agreement between the two countries that Russia would enrich uranium for Iran, putting some relative safeguards on the process. Many countries in the West have expressed fear that Iran, which covered up from the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) enrichment work and nuclear black-market purchases for almost 20 years, is trying to build nuclear weapons. BU Today talked with Cutler Cleveland, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of geography and director of BU’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies,  about what Iran’s defiance might mean.

BU Today: What is the difference between enriched uranium and reprocessed nuclear fuel?

Cleveland: Enriched uranium is extracted and processed to increase the radioactive content of the fuel. When you take uranium from the ground, it has to go through the enrichment process. Reprocessing refers to fuel that has been removed from a reactor and contains uranium and plutonium, but reprocessing is akin to recycling. Spent fuel can be sent back to an enrichment plant and chemically treated to be used as fresh fuel.

Are there countries that reprocess spent nuclear fuel for energy use?

There are some, yes — the UK, Japan.

What is the risk of giving access to Iran to reprocess nuclear fuel?

The issue is the link to possible proliferation of nuclear material and weapons. The material that comes out of a power plant is already enriched to a large degree. If people were to get their hands on that fuel, they would be able to bypass the early part of the process — the expensive and technically sophisticated steps to creating nuclear fuel.

The United States chose nearly 40 years ago not to reprocess nuclear fuel, and pressure mounts to clean up the waste. Why doesn’t this country reprocess nuclear fuel?

The concern is that to engage in a large-scale reprocessing program shipping nuclear material across the country, the material could possibly fall into the hands of terrorists. It’s also very expensive. Whether it’s economically feasible depends on the price of natural uranium. Even if it were politically desirable does not mean it’s economically feasible.

What are the advantages of enabling Iran to use nuclear fuel enriched on Russian soil?

I think the idea is that if Russia did this for Iran, the world would feel safer. Helping them develop a civil nuclear energy program with the appropriate safeguards and oversight as provided by the international conventions of the IAEA is something that would be worth considering, but they have to be open to the inspection and monitoring that other countries are. Certainly anything that increases the ability of a country to get its hands on enriched fuel without a transparent system of monitoring and assessment would be a concern.