By Juan Cole
GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum warned North Dakota on Wednesday that it was in the cross-hairs of an Iranian attack.
Among the news about Iran that had Americans thinking about that country was an announcement that Iran is making its own nuclear fuel and using it for a reactor.
Iran has a small medical research nuclear reactor, which produces nuclear isotopes for use in chemotherapy. The reactor requires uranium enriched to 19.75 percent to run. Iran announced on Wednesday that it had managed to enrich to that level , and is now installing the homemade fuel plates in the reactor.
The medical reactor, at Natanz near Isfahan, was given to Iran by the United States and was inaugurated in 1967. The reactor is being regularly inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure it is being used only for civilian purposes, and the IAEA was present Thursday to watch the insertion of the fuel rod.
The reactor actually has no conceivable military purpose, and its fuel, uranium enriched to 19.75 percent, is used up when run through the reactor, so it cannot be used to make a nuclear warhead. Nuclear bombs need the uranium to be enriched to 95 percent, typically. Iran is not yet able to achieve that level of enrichment, and says it is not trying to.
Iran also unveiled 3000 new centrifuges,which will allow it to make new fuel rods for its civilian nuclear reactors more quickly.
I saw the CNN coverage of the fueling of the nuclear isotopes reactor and was astonished that they kept saying this development was “dangerous” or “ominous.” Actually, it is good news that Iran can make fuel for the research reactor, since it produces isotopes for treating cancer victims.
Iran is permitted by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that began being signed in the late 1960s to enrich uranium for peaceful uses such as fueling reactors, but the United States and the UN Security Council have attempted to unilaterally abrogate that right in the case of Iran. Israel is not signatory to the NPT, and has gone for broke to produce some 400 nuclear warheads.
To sum up, medical nuclear reactor at Isfahan likely not a danger to the people of North Dakota.