The Journal Editorial Report | March 18, 2005 | PBS
March 18, 2005
Visitors view a model at the Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) in Isfahan,
Iran, on March, 7, 2005. An Iranian official confirmed that an uranium
enrichment plant in central Iran is underground as a protection against
airstrikes, but insisted that is not a sign the program aims to produce
nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Mehr News Agency)
Q: But isn't Iran's latest offer to open its program up to more intrusive inspections and to downsize its enrichment facilities dramatically, sufficient to guarantee that it will not suddenly switch its nuclear program from peaceful power production to making bombs?
A: No. First, while one can monitor plants that produce or work with large amounts of nuclear weapons usable materials, such as enriched uranium, it is still impossible to do so in a way that would constitute an effective safeguard against the plants or their output being used to make bombs relatively quickly. As noted above, a peaceful nuclear activity must be one that can be monitored in such a way that any attempted diversions from them to make bombs can be prevented. That is, they must be monitored in a manner in which one can detect the diversion of a bomb's worth of weapons usable material (plutonium or highly enriched uranium) before a bomb can be made and early enough to allow an outside authority to act effectively to block the diversion from being completed.
Why is safeguarding such plants not yet feasible? First, the plants themselves (known as nuclear bulk handing facilities, which include reprocessing plants that chemically separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel, centrifuge enrichment plants that can produce lightly enriched fuel for power reactors or highly enriched uranium for bombs, and plants that fabricate these materials into reactor fuel) can be used to make bomb fuel overnight. This fuel, in turn, could be turned into bombs in a matter of hours or days, i.e., much more quickly than any monitoring procedure could set off alarms to block the building of a bomb.
Second, once commercial sized versions of these plants are put into operation, it's virtually impossible to keep track of the vast amount of bomb usable material they do or can quickly produce. With centrifuge enrichment plants, IAEA inspectors, for example, still can't independently verify what the operator claims the facility's production capacity is. As such, an operator could lie, lowball a plant's enrichment capacity to IAEA inspectorsand, in between IAEA inspections visits, covertly run the plant to produce enough weapons grade uranium to make a bomb. In short, no matter how "intrusive" one's inspections might be of Iran's enrichment plant, Iran could rest assured that it could always divert the plant to make bombs and do so before anyone could prevent them from actually acquiring one or more bombs.
What of allowing Iran to operate a "pilot" sized enrichment plant? Here, the worry must be that making this concession would only enable Iran to perfect all it needs to carry on much larger scale enrichment activities elsewhere covertly and, in addition, make it much more difficult to uncover such covert activity. This is hardly an academic hypothetical. Iran just announced it was building a nuclear storage tunnel one kilometer (.64 mile) deep. We do not know where else it might be tunneling. We also know Iran has had for nearly a decade, all the engineering details necessary to build much more advanced centrifuge enrichment facilities than those Iran has reluctantly declared. Iran claims it never went ahead and built these more advanced plants. That Iran may be lying about this, has many, including the IAEA, worried.