A Canadian Fix for the Iran Crisis? Can do, or CANDU?
Guest Editorial by Jim Borynec
‘ Iran and the USA are involved in a major diplomatic tussle over nuclear technology.
USA claims that Iran is building a bomb while IRAN claims that peaceful nuclear power is their right under article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
For the moment, lets assume that Iran really does want peaceful nuclear power. How can they get it?
To obtain peaceful nuclear power the Iranians will need to build a reactor and obtain fuel for it. The quickest way to get a reactor is to buy it from some friendly country (Russia). Similarly, Iran could simply buy the fuel (enriched uranium) from Russia. However, buying the fuel poses a problem for the Iranians. If the country selling the fuel gets annoyed by Iran (or co-opted by someone else), they can stop selling more fuel to Iran.
Then, when Iran runs out of the existing stockpile of fuel, there is no electricity and the lights go out in Tehran. This is clearly an undesirable outcome for the Iranians.
Fortunately, Iran has good deposits of uranium ore. They could mine it themselves and not be dependent on the good graces of some third party except that ore isn’t the same thing as fuel. To obtain fuel, you have to turn the ore into uranium (easy) and turn the uranium into enriched uranium (hard). This is why the Iranians want to have enrichment capability.
It is also where the “catch” comes in. If you can enrich uranium enough to make reactor fuel, it isn’t all that hard to enrich it even more to build a bomb. Thus, the americans don’t want Iran to obtain enrichment technology.
Luckily there is a way around this catch.
Canadian CANDU reactors operate on natural uranium. Iran could buy a CANDU reactor and use its own natural uranium to supply power independent of third party control.
With natural uranium fuel, there is no need for an enrichment cycle and Iran will have a tougher time building a bomb. Also, CANDU reactors have other nice properties (like improved efficiency and on-power refueling).
A CANDU reactor should meet all of the Iranian’s publicly stated ambitions for peaceful nuclear power.
On the other hand, the Canadians were involved in building a (non-CANDU) reactor for India which was used by the Indians to get the bomb in 1974.
It was a nasty shock and it made Canada wary about selling un-protected nuclear technology. Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL) then devoted a lot of attention to designing safeguards ensuring that purchasers of CANDU reactors won’t use the technology to build bombs.
These safeguards should meet the Americans and the IAEA’s requirements on meeting Iran’s obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
A CANDU isn’t a silver bullet. The reactor has aging problems like all other nuclear reactors. However, it may be a way to dodge the next war in the Middle East. ‘