By Olli Heinonen
This commentary was published in Foreign Affairs on 27/01/2011
The world's major powers are locked in a dead-end conflict with Iran over its nuclear program. Last week, talks in Istanbul between Iran and the five members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, ended badly, with no sign of a breakthrough on the horizon.
As the former head of safeguards for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), I have spent much of the past decade watching the ups and downs of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. In the last few years, the stalemate has only deepened. During that time, I have learned that proposals and counterproposals too often fulfilled either one side's concerns or the other's, making it difficult to start the process of cooperation. Here's a proposal that could let both sides break this impasse and start rebuilding the trust needed to get at bigger issues.
The Iranians have been enriching uranium to 3.5 percent U-235 for the last four years, flouting U.N. resolutions and Western sanctions. Last February, they also began enriching to 20 percent, sparking further concerns in the West that Tehran is working toward the capacity to make nuclear weapons.
Iran says it needs that higher-enriched uranium for fuel for its aging Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes for the country's hospitals. This is a widely recognized, legitimate need; every country relies on such radioisotopes, for example, in cancer treatment and other medical procedures. But the West is also legitimately concerned about Iran enriching uranium to 20 percent, not least because that gets Iran closer to the 90 percent enrichment required to make weapons-grade U-235. These concerns have grown as Iran has limited its cooperation with the IAEA and brushed aside questions about possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.
A tentative deal fell through last year that would have swapped much of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium for research reactor fuel that would have been produced by a Russian -- French -- U.S. consortium. Further talks have been inconclusive. And all the time, Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium continues to grow. It now has more than 3 tons, which should be sufficient, if further enriched, for one to two nuclear devices. In 2012, with the introduction of advanced centrifuges, Iran will be in a position to convert its current stock to high-enriched uranium in less than a year's time.
This troubling scenario is actually a golden opportunity for the United States and its partners to get together with Iran and agree to replace the TRR with a new reactor monitored by the IAEA.
The bottom line for Iran and the West is providing a secure supply of medical radioisotopes in a way that does not enable Iran to enrich uranium that could be diverted to a weapons program.
Iranians ought to be concerned about the safety of the TRR, which uses outmoded technology. It was located well outside Tehran when it was built in 1967, but the city's sprawling growth has seen apartment complexes and office buildings bump up against the research reactor site. And this is an earthquake-prone region.
Currently, Iran is constructing a heavy-water reactor in the city of Arak that is not best-suited for radioisotope production and that produces plutonium, which has raised proliferation concerns. But this reactor design could be modified to accommodate a new research reactor using low-enriched fuel instead. After all, when Iran announced the Arak reactor plan in 2003, its stated rationale was that the TRR was aging.
Then, last June, the Iranian government said it would design another research reactor, to be operational in five years. Ali Akbar Salehi, the president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, did not disclose a location or specifics -- all the more reason to seek a comprehensive solution for Iran's research reactor projects.
The offer to help build a new, more secure research reactor to replace the TRR could revive the fuel swap program, in which Iran would agree to send more of its enriched uranium out of the country to be converted into fuel for the new reactor. The outcome would provide Iran with a solid supply of medical isotopes and a new, up-to-date training facility for its scientists. And it would address proliferation concerns by limiting the increase of stocks of enriched uranium and future production of plutonium.
There would be a gap of a couple of years in which isotopes would not be produced in Iran while the new reactor wasbeing completed. To meet the medical needs of the country, one interim solution would be to follow the approach taken by many other countries: Iran could buy raw material from the world market and prepare medical isotope kits in Tehran using current production facilities until the new reactor with up-to-date hot cells is operational.
A modern, more powerful research reactor will require a substantial part of Iran's current stocks of enriched uranium -- ensuring that they are not available for further enrichment for weapons -- and provide a secure, reliable supply of radioisotopes for decades to come. It would only be a first step, however. Iran will still need to address the world's broader concerns about the scope and intentions behind its nuclear program. But successful cooperation on a new reactor might make those conversations a little bit easier.
Olli Heinonen is senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. Previously he was deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.