Why is Iran pursuing an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle?

Iran fuel resource constraints

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory have produced a report that puts some facts and figures (not to mention charts and graphs) behind a point I’ve been making for some time now: that Iran’s explanation for its nuclear development program does not make economic sense (hat tip: Arms Control Wonk). As I mentioned before

  • Iran can achieve energy independence more efficiently by using the natural gas vented off their oilheads than by generating electricity using nuclear power plants
  • Iran doesn’t have enough indigenous uranium to fuel its plants for their life cycle

The report also makes several points that I haven’t seen made before:

One is that continued investment by Iran in front-end nuclear technology projects will represent a significant drain on capital resources available for other projects. We cannot accurately estimate the extent of this effect, but these projects compete for financial capital, brainpower, and political focus with the fossil energy and conservation projects described above. The recent proposal for an enrichment facility to be located in Russia, while a positive step from an economic perspective, will also demand capital to be realized. This investment competition problem can only be addressed by abandoning the unproductive investment in indigenous front-end fuel cycle facilities, and negotiating a cost-sharing arrangement with Russia that reflects the true costs of Russian enrichment operations and equitably shares the economics associated with this technology.

The second, more subtle, economic problem is that continuation of front-end fuel cycle facility investments will only sour the climate for foreign investment in Iran’s energy economy, and for international commerce with Iran in general. Although this effect depends on perceptions and trust, it could be very important in the long run. The extent of international consensus evidenced in recent IAEA actions makes it clear that these facilities are perceived as motivated by an intent to acquire weapons. It has been observed that the strong perception of nuclear weapons intent for the nuclear program has “created an atmosphere of distrust in the region.”[13] Pursuing even limited future research in these facilities would add to this atmosphere and clearly harm the prospects for productive economic collaboration and profitable projects. It is also likely to lead to economic sanctions, which would harm the Iranian economy to an even greater degree.

So, why is Iran pursuing an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle?

  • They are developing nuclear weapons.
  • They want to be in a position to develop nuclear weapons.
  • They want people (including their own) to believe that they’re developing nuclear weapons.
  • The prestige associated with nuclear power is greater than that of pursuing energy independence by the most economical means.
  • There are other factors that we’re not aware of.

Any of the first three alternatives is not acceptable. As I mentioned in my last post on this subject, the perception that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons is very nearly as destabilizing as Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons would be.

Or, it’s just possible that, contrary to what I’ve been maintaining, Iran’s regime is not rational.

I’m open to additional speculation. Feel free to contribute you own ideas.

5 comments… add one
  • Thank you Dave.

    I still don’t understand why nuclear power DID make sense in the past, but it DOES NOT make sense anymore. I wonder why a research done by standford research institute some 3 decades ago DID suggest that Iran needs nuclear power, but the research! you referred to DOES NOT confirm it.

    Which one do we trust?
    As an academic, I know how to evaluate a paper: First, I look at the abstract and references. Guess what!? More than 78% of the references are web documents. It looks like a web research project. All it takes is a computer, one or two weeks, and few trips to library. (This is definitely not the way strategic planning works!.). Their references for such a research do not seem to be very rich.

    What about the research by Stanford Research Institute?
    Considering the good US-Iran relationship before Iran’s revolution, I can almost certainly assume that researchers in Stanford Research Institute had a very good (if not full) access to their required information.

    OK. I have to confess that I have not yet read the report. I’ll write about it whenever I get a chance to read it.

    Now, about your question:
    Option 1: We have already talked about it. Iran will not have any military supremacy in the region by producing 1 or 2 or 10 nuclear bombs. For Iran, producing a N-bomb is signing the deal for destruction of its infrastructure. And as you put it, “it’s not just its infrastructure that Iran would be risking by pursuing nuclear weapons.” (so lets not assume that Iranian officials don’t know it, cause they do).

    Option 2: I guess this is it. (We’ve already discussed this option as well). I think Iran wants to enrich urinuam to make herself a nuclear-capable state (a country that has the ability to make a N-bomb, but does not have it). As Andy puts it, “this has the advantage of keeping the Iranian program completely in the legal realm under the NPT”. (what happened to Andy’s first comment, did he erase it?)

    Options 3&4: Out of question. If they wanted prestige, they would have suspended their enrichment program (to be less demonized).

    Option 5: Yes, there are other factors: Nuclear fuel cycle technology can be as deterrent as a N-bomb. Iran will have stronger control over oil export/prices. Iran will have an increased strategic weight in the region.

  • tom p

    the link to the report isn’t working for me.

  • Thanks, tom p. Apparently, that link to the paper isn’t available any more. I’ve changed the post to a link that works. I’ve also squirrelled the paper away in case that link vanishes.

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