Iran's Yellowcake Submarine
or, How to Succeed in Weapons Grade Uranium Enrichment without Really Lying
Iran has got away with mastering, more or less, the art of uranium enrichment. On a purely technical level, subject to a bit of further trial and error, they've clearly got the wherewithal to finish the job and produce weapons grade fissile material, should they choose to do so. But in the real world leaping that gap – getting from a stockpile of 20% enriched uranium to a stockpile of weapon‑grade uranium (90%+) – is not quite so easy. Keeping things secret is not something they’ve been all that great at: plus, their clandestine nuclear weapons research program couldn’t really be called clandestine when it’s led by someone who’s pretty much reached celebrity status.
So what to do next? Well, it’d be helpful if someone came up with some sort of fig‑leaf for doing a bit of uranium enrichment beyond the 20% level before attempting a breakout. And it seems that the Tehran brains trust has either been dipping into the psychedelics or enjoying some Stingray re-runs (maybe both at once – now that sounds like a pretty decent Sunday afternoon), because they’ve decided that the answer to this problem actually lies under the sea. Yep, under the sea: clearly, everything’s better down where it’s wetter…
Standby for action! It all began in June of last year. A hitherto obscure Iranian naval official, Rear Admiral Abbas Zamani (عباس زمانی), announced with about as much fanfare as a man declaring that he’d enjoyed a particularly good bag of tortillas that Iran had begun “initial steps to design and build nuclear submarine propulsion systems”.
NUCLEAR SUBMARINE PROPULSION SYSTEMS. That’s right. For nuclear submarines. These things.
I don’t think you need me to explain the gaping credibility gap here. In terms of its relationship with reality, the idea of an Iranian nuclear submarine ranks up there with the Nautiluses of Jules Verne or Robert Fulton – either pure fantasy or something about as seaworthy as an Italian cruise liner. Indeed, Admiral Zamani’s proposal was so implausible that he might have well announced that Iran’s future nuclear Deep Sea Vehicle would be crewed by the late Roy Scheider. And a talking dolphin.
I guess navies everywhere have their boondoggle vanity projects. But there was more to it in this case, of course. In July last year, a parliamentary committee in Iran’s Majlis approved a plan for studying the construction of nuclear‑powered ‘civilian ships that would not need to refuel in foreign ports’. Nuclear-powered ships! Mind-bogglingly mental. (Let’s put aside the fact that the main problem with Iran’s fleet of oil tankers is more that no-one will insure them due to sanctions, not that Iran can’t get them refuelled.) The only place where you’ll actually find nuclear reactors on civilian ships these days is in Russian icebreakers – and I like the odds of seeing Kim Kardashian as the next elected Iranian president much more than those of an Iranian nuclear-powered ship ever breaking any ice.
Not so Iran’s state press! They rolled out po‑faced treatises on the robust merits of using nuclear reactors to fuel cargo ships, failing to mention that every other country pretty much gave up on that particular idea in about 1968, along with nuclear-powered spacecraft, nuclear-powered jets, nuclear-powered cars, nuclear-excavated canals, nuclear artillery, Armageddon‑averting Aerosmith career‑reviving nuclear asteroid-killers, and every other completely mental idea involving putting nukes or reactors where they really don’t belong.
So what was this about? Well, it wasn’t really about submarines. Nor was it about ships.
Things started to make more sense shortly thereafter. The Tehran Times quoted an ‘informed source’ who stated that Tehran’s plan for its new nuclear‑fuelled fleet would require Iran to enrich uranium to levels above 20 %.
Ah – cue the sound of the penny dropping. Obviously, naval nuclear reactors don’t generally run on natural (0.07 %) or low-enriched (<20%) uranium fuel: they tend to use something a lot closer to… dare I say it…
WEAPONS GRADE URANIUM.
Funny that. (Also funny that one of the sole legal ways for Iran to play with enriched nuclear material outside the purview of the IAEA would be for it to do so under the guise of military nuclear submarine development.)
Before long, these loose mumblings about higher levels of enrichment got more and more precise:
A senior cleric, Seyyed Reza Taqavi (سید رضا تقوی) was quoted as saying that if Iran’s negotiations with the west continued to go poorly, Iran would soon be in a position “to achieve 56% enriched fuel”.
MP Abolghassem Jarrareh (ابوالقاسم جراره) said Iran would produce highly enriched uranium to fuel ships – "certainly…higher than 25%, something about 50 to 60%”.
Then in October, another regime crony, Mansour Haghighatpour (منصور حقیقتپور), stated that the stand-off in Iran’s negotiations with the west just might lead to Iran enriching “to 60%”.
And in May of this year, after things didn’t exactly go smashingly at the P5+1 discussions at Almaty I or Almaty II, Iran’s top nuclear official Fereidoun Abbasi Davani noted that “if our researchers need to have a stronger underwater presence, we will have to make small engines which should be fuelled by 45 to 56% enriched uranium.”
Note a pattern here? Maybe it’s just me, but I THINK THEY’RE TRYING TO TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT ENRICHING BEYOND TWENTY PERCENT!
As messaging, it’s not subtle. This whole 60% enrichment thing is a textbook play from the Iranian nuclear strategy book. When they’re thinking about doing something that just might get them bombed – and they don’t think they can get away with it in secret – they publicly test the waters. If no‑one important pushes back – particularly those with MOPs in their back pocket – Iran does exactly what they said they were thinking about doing.
It’s happened before. Remember early 2010, when President Ahmadinejad announced with great fanfare that Iran would soon start producing 20% enriched uranium to provide fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor? Perhaps thinking it was all hype (or just a way to bugger up international negotiations) the world didn’t really do much in response – and crucially, didn’t tell Iran not to do it. Then Iran started producing 20% enriched uranium. As they said they would.
And the circa-60% enrichment mark is interesting – and worrying – for a few reasons. It means being able to learn about technical issues like criticality that aren’t quite so important at the 20% level. It’s also a few spins of the centrifuge away from 90%+, which is weapons-grade. And perhaps most glaringly, it’s the enrichment stage that AQ Khan told Iran about as being the ideal intermediate point on the way from 20% to weapons grade. Doubt that Iran will ever take the next step? Well…
Here’s a strange series of coincidences: the enrichment plan that AQ Khan provided Iran involved producing weapons grade enriched uranium in four stages, like this:
Iran has already found a spurious reason for stage one – producing 3.5% enriched uranium to fuel future power plants that they have no real chance of ever building. And for stage two – for making research reactor fuel to produce medical isotopes they could easily buy from abroad. And with this submarine caper they seem to have found a reason for stage three. So: while pursuing all these entirely innocent activities they somehow have replicated the exact same plan that they bought from AQ Khan for enriching uranium to produce nuclear weapons. It’s not by accident. (And don’t get fooled by Iran’s 3.34% uranium not being 3.5%, its 19.75% not being 20%, and its 56% not being 60% – in each case they’re practically the same thing.)
Can’t someone do something about this? If only. Cleverly, Iran also wedges their activities right below the red-lines of those who matter most. The stated US red‑line on Iran is ‘don’t actually produce nuclear weapons.’ The stated Israeli red-line is ‘don’t produce a weapon’s worth of 20% enriched uranium’ Unfortunately for us, there’s a heck of a lot more that Iran can do below these red-lines that will help them inch closer to nuclear weapons production – and you’ll note that 60% enrichment falls below both of those lines.
So – in the continued absence of any very, very clear warnings against doing so from the international community – expect Iran to start producing uranium at somewhere around 60% in the none-too-distant future, and expect them to just maybe get away with it. The nuclear submarine is just a distraction.
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