US Sens. Graham, Menendez Propose New Approach To Containing Tehran’s Nuclear Ambitions
US Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, meets in Jerusalem with Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Feb. 13, 2022. (Twitter/Benny Gantz)

US Sens. Graham, Menendez Propose New Approach To Containing Tehran’s Nuclear Ambitions

Iran would stop enriching uranium, and a regional fuel bank would supply it with fissionable material

US Sens. Bob Menendez, D-NJ, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Lindsey Graham, R-SC, ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, introduced a bipartisan resolution calling for an alternative approach to Iran, aiming to avoid a destabilizing arms race in the Middle East.

The proposition includes an international fuel bank to supply nuclear power plants in the Islamic Republic, which would provide Iran, and other countries in the region, with low-enriched uranium “if they forgo uranium enrichment and reprocessing.”

Kevin Bishop, Graham’s spokesman, told The Media Line the proposition has already been sent to committee.

It could prevent a massive arms race in the Middle East, the senator explained at a news conference attended by The Media Line in Jerusalem on Monday. Graham suggested that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, the Sunni Arab countries will quickly seek to do the same.

“The establishment of a regional fuel bank supported by the resolution would allow the commercial development of nuclear power throughout the region while at the same time eliminating the need for dangerous and destabilizing domestic nuclear programs,” according to a statement to the media outlining the proposal.

A commitment from Iran to the project would in turn bring a commitment from the US to lift “certain ‘primary’ sanctions, as appropriate. Other US sanctions should remain in place until Iran verifiably ceases its other malign activity, including its support for terrorism, its human rights abuses, its hostage-taking, and its destabilizing activities in the region,” according to the statement.

The Iranians enriching uranium, given that they have one nuclear power plant, seems to be not economically justified, and so you have to examine other reasons why they are exploring doing so

Chris Gadomski, the head of research, nuclear for New York-based Bloomberg New Energy Finance, told The Media Line Iran’s enrichment intentions are “uneconomic.”

“It’s much cheaper for them to buy the uranium fuel from the Russians, given that they [the Iranians] have only one nuclear power plant,” he said.

However, the Islamic Republic has its own ambitions.

Matthew L. Wald, an energy consultant and writer who was formerly a policy analyst and communications adviser at the Nuclear Energy Institute trade association and a reporter at The New York Times, explained that the precise form of fuel needed differs from reactor to reactor.

“So, to make fuel from the material in the [proposed] repository, you’d have to ship the cylinders holding UF6 to a fabricator,” he said.

UF6, uranium hexafluoride, is a volatile white solid used in enriching uranium, which produces fuel for nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons.

Wald explained that there are several commercial fuel fabricators in Europe, the United States and Russia. The Russians currently fabricate fuel for the Iranian nuclear power plant in Bushehr.

He added, however, that Iran apparently told the Russians in December that it wants to make its own fuel.

Gadomski said that Tehran has good relations with Moscow and the Bushehr reactor is Russian-designed, so it should be no problem for Iran to use Russian uranium. “You need a critical mass of nuclear power plants before it makes economic sense to go ahead and build enrichment facilities,” he added.

Even countries such as South Korea, which operates 24 nuclear power plants, do not have an enrichment facility, Gadomski said.

Wald says that building an enrichment complex or fuel fabrication plant for a single reactor, or even a small number of reactors, would be unusual. “It would be like owning a single automobile factory and building a steel mill to supply just that factory,” he said.

Gadomski says that it is time to examine the reasons why Iran is enriching their own uranium. “The Iranians enriching uranium, given that they have one nuclear power plant, seems to be not economically justified, and so you have to examine other reasons why they are exploring doing so.”

“I question why the Iranians are focusing on enrichment. It doesn’t seem to be solidly for peaceful purposes,” he added.

Li-Chen Sim, a non-resident scholar at the US Middle East Institute, told The Media Line that, in any case, the proposed fuel bank only addresses the uranium enrichment part of the nuclear fuel cycle.

“It doesn’t address fuel fabrication, the process of making the fuel rods for the reactors. So, Iran may still be incentivized to have its own processing, enrichment and fabrication facility,” she said.

“The issue is also about prestige and national pride for Iran. So just reducing the issue to nuclear fuel fails to address its multifaceted nature,” Sim said.

However, Gadomski said that if a well-supplied international fuel bank is created, “that should be a positive step to persuade Iran that it doesn’t need to enrich uranium.”

Bishop said the proposed facility would be either a “regional fuel bank or an existing fuel bank outside the Middle East.”

There are already several fuel banks outside the US, including in Kazakhstan, Russia, and the UK, so the case for yet another one, even if, like the one in Kazakhstan, it is administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is not clear, says Sim.

Wald said the senators’ proposal includes the idea that a current IAEA reserve facility could simply be expanded. “That probably would not take very long,” he said. “The IAEA maintains a stockpile in Kazakhstan,” he added.

The goal of our proposal is to ensure these Middle Eastern states, including Iran, have access to fuel to power their commercial reactors

Gadomski explained that uranium is currently relatively inexpensive, around $43 a pound; at one point it was $140 a pound. And the facility in Kazakhstan, for example, is already up and running. All that is required, he added, “is additional funds to produce low-enriched uranium.”

Iran claims it is enriching uranium because it has in the past been prevented from buying the fuel it needs to power its nuclear facilities, Gadomski said. “The establishment of the facility in Kazakhstan should eliminate that concern. It solves the problem by providing Iran an option to acquire enriched uranium without having to do so itself,” he added.

Regarding the participation of Sunni Arab countries in the proposed fuel bank, Sim said it would depend on where it is located and who controls it.

Bishop said Graham believe the Sunni Arab countries would participate.

Graham said in a statement that the fuel bank would “allow Iran and other Middle Eastern nations to purchase Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) from a regional fuel bank or supply LEU from an existing fuel bank outside the Middle East.”

He continued: “The goal of our proposal is to ensure these Middle Eastern states, including Iran, have access to fuel to power their commercial reactors.”

“There is no reason to enrich uranium [yourself] if your goal is to have peaceful nuclear power. I believe this proposal will be well-received by our allies in the region and should be welcomed by Iran if peaceful nuclear power is truly what they desire,” Graham said.

 

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