Tag Archives: nuclear non-proliferation

How Lasers Facilitate Nuclear Weapons Production

Different lazer sizes. The neodymium glass lasers (bottom) are used for nuclear weapons research.

 Using spinning gas centrifuges to enrich fuel for nuclear bombs requires a structure the size of a department store, and enough electricity for some 10,000 homes. An alternative method being developed would make the search far more difficult...The alternative is to zap the uranium vapour with a powerful infra-red beam from a laser…At least 27 countries, by one tally, have worked on laser enrichment since the 1970s. Most gave up, largely because production batches were tiny. Now, however, two firms say that they have learned how to scale up the process.

Jeffrey Eerkens of Neutrek, a Californian research firm, says its laser process requires around half the space and electricity that centrifuges need. A competing laser method is offered by Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), a consortium of General Electric, Hitachi and Cameco, a Canadian uranium producer. It, too, requires less space. In 2012 GLE was awarded a licence to build a facility in North Carolina for the commercial production of reactor fuel.

America has classified the technology, but that may not stop it spreading. The most important bit of laser-enrichment know-how has already leaked, says Charles Ferguson, head of the Federation of American Scientists—namely, that companies now consider it to be practical. This will reinvigorate efforts by other countries to develop the technology for themselves….

Non-proliferation optimists think laser-enrichment might not work as well as advertised, because GLE has still not begun commercial production. But this may be only temporary, because the company says the price of enriched uranium is too low to justify completing the project. A regime keen for a more discreet path to the bomb would not bother with such considerations.

Monitoring nuclear weapons: Lasering the fuel, Economist Technology Quarterly,  Sept. 5, 2015

Advertisements

Secrecy at the International Atomic Energy Agency

iaea, headquarters vienna

The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], which is charged with both promoting the peaceful use of nuclear power and controlling fuel that could be used in weapons, is holding its quadrennial safeguards meeting behind closed doors for the first time in at least 12 years this week in Vienna. The agency also decided to withdraw information about nuclear projects that have led to proliferation risks.

The IAEA restricted access to the symposium [Linking, Implementation, Safety, Nuclear, Safeguards, Atomic Energy, Technology, Science, Energy, Chemistry, Physics] held between October 20 and October 24, 2014, so participants aren’t “inhibited,” spokeswoman Gill Tudor said in an e-mail while noting that the opening and closing ceremonies will be public. Information about technical cooperation, which has been progressively restricted since 2012, will be made available again in the “coming weeks,” IAEA public-information director Serge Gas said in an e-mail….

To be sure, some IAEA members such as Iran would like to see the agency impose even greater controls over information. President Hassan Rouhani’s government asked the IAEA in a Sept. 19 open letter to investigate leaks of confidential data that it said could violate the interim agreement it signed with world powers last year.

Iran’s stance shows the agency is guilty of a double failure, according to Tariq Rauf, a former IAEA official who is now a director at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. While the public is increasingly excluded from the scientific debate that shapes policy decisions, “the agency routinely allows secret information about nuclear programs to be given to select Western countries, which then leak it out,” he said.… The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a 2011 report it’s wary about IAEA help to Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria.  Past IAEA technical assistance probably wound up helping Pakistan discover and mine the uranium that went into its nuclear weapons. In Syria, the agency developed a uranium-ore production facility that later drew scrutiny after the Middle East country allegedly built a secret reactor…

Scientists at this week’s meeting will explain how they can use rooftop sensors to sniff out the gases given off during plutonium production, according to the meeting agenda. Others will look at new ways to analyze satellite imagery, more sensitive methods for measuring traces of radioactivity and the difficulties in keeping track of nuclear material at places like Japan’s $20 billion plutonium-separation facility in Rokkasho. [abstracts of presentations]

Excerpts from Jonathan Tirone. Nuclear Secrecy Feeds Concerns of Rogues Getting Weapons, Bloomberg, Oct 22, 2014n

Iran Nuclear Talks: the Khamenei Card

Gas centrifuge cascade. Image from wikipedia

On July 7, 1014 as critical nuclear negotiations got underway in Vienna between Iran, the United States, Europe, Russia and China, Khamenei (Iranian Supreme Leader) started talking hard numbers.  The Supreme Leader’s remarks were unprecedented both because they represented a blatant intervention from his perch in Tehran in the super-sensitive talks in Vienna, and because they relayed confidential technical details that had not been aired publicly before by Iranian officials.

The moment could not be more critical. An agreement is supposed to be reached before July 20, 2014 that will rein in the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and end or curtail the Western sanctions that have put so much pressure on Tehran. Failure to reach an accord will add yet more potentially apocalyptic uncertainties to the Middle Eastern scene…

The Supreme Leader started talking about SWUs, which it is fair to say few Iranians, or for that matter Americans, Europeans, Russians or Chinese ever have heard of.  In this context the acronym stands for “separative work units,” which relates directly to Iran’s ability to enrich uranium to levels that might feed into nuclear weapons. SWU defines the capability derived from the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges and their efficiency. For example one thousand AR1 centrifuges with the efficiency of 0.9 translates into 900 SWU, whereas 225 AR2 centrifuges with an efficiency of 4 translates into 900 SW…

“They want us to be content with 10,000 SWUs,” he said. That is, he estimates the bottom line the West will accept. “But they have started from 500 and 1000 SWUs,” he added. “Our people say that we need 190,000 SWUs,” he went on. That’s a big spread to try to close.  Khamenei then raised the problem of American and European objections to the more-or-less bomb-proof underground facility Iran has built at Fordo, where much of its enrichment goes on. “They emphasize Fordo because they cannot get to it,” said Khamenei. “They say you must not have a place which we cannot strike. Isn’t this ridiculous?”

Last December [2013] Khamenei said publicly he would not interfere in the negotiations and would leave the details to the diplomats. Now it appears he is playing a more shadowy game, either dictating terms to the Iranian team in Vienna or, perhaps, providing them the cover they need to stand firm.

A source close to the negotiations told IranWire that the numbers Khamenei cited are precisely what American negotiators have put on the table, and constitute one of the confidential topics being discussed over the past few months. Two days before Khamenei spoke, Under Secretary of States for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the senior American negotiator, said that Iran must end up with a fraction of the centrifuges it currently runs, but she did not cite any numbers.

The source said that Khamenei’s statements are technically significant, and are in line with the terms of the negotiations, which deal with SWUs rather than the number of centrifuges as such.

According to a European diplomat who is a member of his country’s nuclear negotiating team, the accuracy of the numbers leaked by Khamenei is both astonishing and worrisome, because he is limiting publicly the concessions that might be made by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s team….

It is clear Khamenei wants to leave no doubt about his regime’s red lines in the negotiations…  But Khamenei doesn’t see this crisis only in terms of nukes. For the West, he says, the nuclear issue “is just an excuse” to pressure Iran, he said. “If it is not the nuclear issue they will come up with another excuse—human rights, women’s right, etc.”

Excerpts from Reza HaghighatNejad, Iran Supreme Leader Spills the Nuke Talk Secrets, Daily Beast, July 9, 2014

Nuclear Materials in Iraq and 2014 Civil War

university of mosul. image from http://www.uomosul.edu.iq/en/

The U.N. atomic agency said on Thursday (July 10, 2014) it believed nuclear material which Iraq said had fallen into the hands of insurgents was “low grade” and did not pose a significant security risk.  Iraq told the United Nations that the material was used for scientific research at a university in the northern town of Mosul and appealed for help to “stave off the threat of their use by terrorists in Iraq or abroad”.

Iraq’s U.N. envoy this week also said that the government had lost control of a former chemical weapons facility to “armed terrorist groups” and was unable to fulfill its international obligations to destroy toxins kept there.  An al Qaeda offshoot, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, took over swathes of Syria and Iraq before renaming itself Islamic State in June and declaring its leader caliph – a title held by successors of the Prophet Mohammad.

The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “is aware of the notification from Iraq and is in contact to seek further details”, IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said.  “On the basis of the initial information we believe the material involved is low grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk,” she said. “Nevertheless, any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern.”

Iraqi U.N. Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a July 8 letter that nearly 40 kg (88 pounds) of uranium compounds were kept at the university.  “Terrorist groups have seized control of nuclear material at the sites that came out of the control of the state,” he said.

However, a U.S. government source said it was not believed to be enriched uranium and therefore would be difficult to use to manufacture into a nuclear weapon. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the reported seizure likely posed no direct threat. But, he said: “The sheer fact that the terrorists … show unmistakeable interest in nuclear and chemical materials is, of course, very alarming”.

Any loss or theft of highly enriched uranium, plutonium or other types of radioactive material is potentially serious as militants could try to use them to make a crude nuclear device or a “dirty bomb”, experts say.  Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA chief inspector, said that if the material came from a university it could be laboratory chemicals or radiation shielding, consisting of natural or depleted uranium.  “You cannot make a nuclear explosive from this amount, but all uranium compounds are poisonous,” Heinonen told Reuters. “This material is also not ‘good’ enough for a dirty bomb.”  In a so-called “dirty bomb”, radioactive material such as might be found in a hospital or factory is combined with conventional explosives that disperse the hazardous radiation.

Citing U.N. investigations dating back ten years or more, Heinonen said there should be no enriched uranium in Mosul. The Vienna-based IAEA helped dismantle Iraq’s clandestine nuclear programme in the 1990s – during Heinonen’s three decades there.  “Iraq should not have any nuclear installation left which uses nuclear material in these quantities,” he said.  Another proliferation expert, Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment think-tank, said: “The Mosul region and several university departments were scoured again and again by U.N. inspectors for a decade after the first Gulf War (1990-1991) and they know what materials were stored there.”  “These included tons of uranium liquid wastes, sources, uranium oxides, and uranium tetrafluoride. Some of these items are still there, but there’s no enriched uranium,” he said.

Excerpts from Fredrik Dahl, UPDATE 4-Seized nuclear material in Iraq “low grade” – UN agency, Reuters, July 10, 2014

Bankers Vices: BNP Paribas and Iran

bnp paribas

BNP Paribas, France’s biggest bank, is reported to be facing a fine of more than $10bn  to settle allegations that it violated US sanctions against Iran and other countries.

The US justice department is pushing the bank to plead guilty to the charges and pay one of the biggest penalties ever imposed on a bank, according to the Wall Street Journal. A deal between the bank and the authorities is still weeks away and the final penalty could yet come in lower than $10bn. The Journal said BNP was seeking to pay less than $8bn, though a person familiar with the bank said its negotiators had not proposed that figure to the justice department…A $10bn fine would be more than five times the biggest amount paid by a bank to settle allegations of violating US sanctions. The US authorities have come down hard on foreign banks, many of them from the UK, for allowing transactions through the US financial system involving parties in Iran, Sudan and other blacklisted countries.

HSBC handed over $1.97bn in 2012, though that fine also settled allegations of money laundering for Mexican drug cartels. Standard Chartered was the next biggest offender, agreeing to pay a total of $667m to the justice department and New York’s banking regulator, mainly for allowing transactions linked to Iran.

On top of the potentially huge fine, BNP Paribas could suffer a temporary ban on processing dollar transactions, a business that is essential to the operations of an international bank. Benjamin Lawsky, New York’s aggressive financial regulator, is said to be seeking a suspension.

In addition to the US justice department, the US treasury department, the attorney’s office in Manhattan, the Manhattan district attorney’s office and Lawsky’s department are all investigating BNP Paribas’s conduct.

Excerpts, Sean Farrell, BNP Paribas faces fine of more than $10bn in US sanctions investigation,Guardian, May 30, 2014

Iran, China and the United States: Unlove Triangle

list

The Chinese government lashed out against the U.S. on April 30, 2014 saying America’s renewed efforts to capture a Chinese national accused of supplying Iran with missile components will only “damage the nonproliferation cooperation.” “The Chinese government is opposed to the U.S. government using domestic law against Chinese enterprises [and] individuals to implement unilateral sanctions,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang told reporters today. “The U.S.’s approach will not help resolve the issue, but will instead damage the nonproliferation cooperation. What I want to emphasize is that the Chinese government puts a great emphasis on the control of nonproliferation exports, and for any violators of China’s nonproliferation laws and regulations, they will be severely punished by the law.”

Gang’s comments came a day after a number of U.S. federal agencies announced a litany of new enforcement actions targeting Chinese national Li Fangwei, also known as Karl Lee, including a $5 million reward for information leading to Fangwei’s arrest or conviction. For years the U.S. had accused Fangwei of supplying Iran with prohibited materials that could be used in its ballistic missile program.

In addition to the $5 million reward, the U.S. Treasury, which had already taken action against Fangwei and firms to which he’s connected—adding eight additional companies to its list of Specifically Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons. The U.S. Commerce Department also added nine China-based suppliers of Fangwei’s to its own Entity List.

The Department of Justice has charged Fangwei with seven counts related to an alleged scheme to launder money through U.S.-based financial institutions and, if arrested and convicted on all counts, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.  “As alleged, Li Fanwei has used subterfuge and deceit to continue to evade U.S. sanctions that had been imposed because of his illicit trade in prohibited materials with Iran,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said. “Previously having been exposed as a violator of those sanctions, Li spun a web of front companies to carry out prohibited transactions essentially in disguise.”

DOJ Assistant Attorney General John Carlin said the coordinated action against Fangwei was a show of the government’s “all tools” approach shutting down his “proliferation activities.”
Fangwei has previously denied U.S. accusations against him, telling Reuters last year (2013) his company stopped selling to Iran after the U.S. began sanctioning the Middle Eastern country years ago. Fangwei said that before that his company did business with Iran, “but we did not export the goods they said we did, missiles or whatever.”

China Raps US After $5M Bounty Placed on Alleged Weapons Supplier,  ABC News, Apr. 30, 2014

How Iran Defeated the Sanctions

Financial Sanctions against Iran and the Chinese Loophole

The Lure of Impossible: Choking Uranium Markets

The Rössing Uranium Mine in Namibia

Making nuclear weapons requires access to materials—highly enriched uranium or plutonium—that do not exist in nature in a weapons-usable form.   The most important suppliers of nuclear technology have recently agreed guidelines to restrict access to the most sensitive industrial items, in the framework of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Nevertheless, the number of countries proficient in these industrial processes has increased over time, and it is now questionable whether a strategy based on close monitoring of technology ‘choke points’ is by itself a reliable barrier to nuclear proliferation.  Time to tighten regulation of the uranium market?

Not all the states that have developed a complex nuclear fuel cycle have naturally abundant uranium. This has created a global market for uranium that is relatively free—particularly compared with the market for sensitive technologies….

Many African states have experienced increased investment in their uranium extractive sectors in recent years. Many, though not all, have signed and ratified the 1996 African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (Pelindaba) Treaty, which entered into force in 2009. Furthermore, in recent years, the relevant countries have often worked with the IAEA to introduce an Additional Protocol to their safeguards agreement with the agency…

One proliferation risk inherent in the current system is that inadequate or falsified information connected to what appear to be legitimate transactions will facilitate uranium acquisition by countries that the producer country would not wish to supply….

A second risk is that uranium ore concentrate (UOC) is diverted, either from the site where it was processed or during transportation, so the legitimate owners no longer have control over it. UOC is usually produced at facilities close to mines—often at the mining site itself—to avoid the cost and inconvenience of transporting large quantities of very heavy ore in raw form to a processing plant.,,,UOC is usually packed into steel drums that are loaded into standard shipping containers for onward movement by road, rail or sea for further processing. The loss of custody over relatively small quantities of UOC represents a serious risk if diversion takes place regularly. The loss of even one full standard container during transport would be a serious proliferation risk by itself. There is thus a need for physical protection of the ore concentrate to reduce the risk of diversion at these stages.

A third risk is that some uranium extraction activity is not covered by the existing rules. For example, uranium extraction can be a side activity connected to gold mining or the production of phosphates. Regulations should cover all activities that could lead to uranium extraction, not only those where uranium extraction is the main stated objective.

Restricting access to natural uranium could be an important aspect of the global efforts to obstruct the spread of nuclear weapons…

Excerpts, from  Ian Anthony and Lina Grip, The global market in natural uranium—from proliferation risk to non-proliferation opportunity, SIPRI, Apr. 13, 2013