Civil or Military Purposes of Nuclear Technology: the Iran Deal Revisited

By Bart de Grood*

Last week I watched the newly released HBO documentary The Final Year on Netflix. It was towards the end of the documentary that I realized how much the Obama administration had achieved of its foreign policy agenda. To mention a few examples: the normalization of the relationship between Cuba and the U.S., the Paris climate agreement, and the Iran nuclear deal.

As a participant of the PAX Nuclear Diplomacy Crash Course, the Iran nuclear deal was particularly interesting to me since the second training session – on nuclear technology – was around the corner. During my time as an exchange student in the United States I had studied the role of the State Department in the negotiations with Iran, but I never had the opportunity to learn more about the specifics of the deal. What is the role of centrifuges in the nuclear fuel cycle? What is the difference between uranium and plutonium? These were all questions that could be answered during the training on nuclear technology by NRG Petten.

NRG Petten – picturesquely located in the dunes north of Alkmaar  – focuses on the production of medical isotopes and the civil use of nuclear technology. As is Frodo Klaassen, who works at NRG Petten and conducts research on nuclear fuel and non-proliferation. Dedicated to teach the Crash Course participants more on nuclear technology, Klaassen began with the different steps in the nuclear fuel cycle as the training started. Most participants had little to no technical background, but nevertheless Klaassen was able to explain each step in an understandable manner. Concepts like mining, enrichment of uranium, and fission were discussed as we worked our way through the nuclear fuel cycle.

Eventually, we discussed the point where it possibly gets blurry to see the difference between nuclear technology for civil and military purposes. It is the point where uranium gets enriched so that it can actually be used for energy production, or – if the enrichment is taken one step further – for military purposes. However, since low as well as high enriched uranium are both used in civil applications, it is important to assess whether high enriched uranium will eventually be used for military purposes. That also forms the basis of the safeguard controls and inspections performed globally by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The struggle of judging others’ intentions with high enriched uranium reminded me – as a political scientist – of the Iran nuclear deal. The deal consists of a few pillars that should decrease the chance of Iran using high enriched uranium for military purposes. First, Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium are reduced. Second, the number of Iran’s installed centrifuges are reduced by two-thirds. Third, the deal prevents Iran from producing weapon-grade plutonium out of uranium. In combination with measures to increase transparency on nuclear activities, it is tried to reduce uncertainty about Iran’s intentions with high enriched uranium.

In light of global peace, it was a milestone achievement that American diplomats – together with their British, Russian, Chinese, French, and German colleagues as well as the supranational body that is the EU – were able strike a deal with Iran in 2015. Especially, since the intentions for using nuclear technology can sometimes be vague. Therefore, it is necessary to increase openness and cooperation if we want to work towards a nuclear weapon-free world. Or, as former president Obama concluded in The Final Year, if we want to follow the trend lines towards a less violent, more empathetic, more generous world.

*Bart de Grood is participating in the PAX Nuclear Diplomacy Crash Course 2018 among 14 other participants. He is pursuing his Master’s degree in Political Science at Leiden University, and focuses on international policy-making and the United States.

[Photo: Nuclear power plant with its cooling towers]