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|Clarifying the Iranian Nuclear Swap Deal|
Is Iran Producing Medical Isotopes?
By JULIEN MERCILE April 7, 2010 Counterpunch
The latest chapter in the Iranian nuclear crisis revolves around a possible “nuclear fuel swap” through which Iran would send most of its low-enriched uranium stocks (LEU at 3.5%) abroad, possibly to Russia and France, which would further enrich it (making it LEU at 19.5%) and then turn it into fuel rods. The fuel rods would be sent to Iran, which could use them in the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) to produce much needed medical isotopes. The problem for Iran at the moment is that the TRR was last refueled in 1993 by Argentina, but it will soon run out of fuel (perhaps in a few months).
The swap deal could be a win-win for both Iran and the West. The West should be pleased by the removal of a good portion of enriched uranium from Iranian soil since this will reduce the possibility that Tehran could decide to use it to make nuclear weapons (nuclear weapons require highly enriched uranium, HEU at 90%). For Iran, fuel for its TRR would allow it to keep producing important isotopes used in the medical field and on which hundreds of thousands of Iranian cancer patients rely.
However, there has been some confusion among experts on the following question: Is Iran currently producing its own medical isotopes, or is it only importing them from other countries? It is important to clarify this issue since the ways in which the latest crisis can be resolved depend in part on what exactly Iran is doing.
Flynt and Hillary Leverett, well known analysts of Iran, wrote some days ago here and here that Iran was not producing any medical isotopes domestically and that it imported all of its requirements. So did Geoffrey Forden writing at Jeffrey Lewis’ blog. But others write that Iran is now producing isotopes, although they do not give many details.
I asked an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) representative, but she told me: “we are not commenting at this time” on this issue.
What is the situation then?
I asked Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, about Iran’s activities in the field of medical isotopes production. Anticipating Western government officials’ charges of duplicity, I cross-checked his statements by reviewing a March 2010 article authored by Iranian scientists from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran in the journal Nuclear Technology, published by the American Nuclear Society in the United States . The two accounts appear to match, and are as follows.
Iran now produces domestically two important medical isotopes with the TRR: technetium-99 and iodine-131. Recent media stories have emphasized production of technetium-99 so I focus on this one.
Technetium-99 is obtained from molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), perhaps the most important medical isotope in the world. 95% of the world’s Mo-99 demand is met by four countries that manufacture it (Canada, Belgium, South Africa and the Netherlands). These countries use highly enriched uranium (HEU at 90%) to produce Mo-99.
Up until 2007, Iran bought its Mo-99 on the world market, but it has now developed a way to produce it domestically, through irradiating Mo-98 in the TRR. This leads to the production of Mo-99, which is then used to produce technetium-99. Apparently Iran does not currently import Mo-99.
(As an aside, Iran is also producing other medical isotopes, notably isotopes of thallium and gallium, at its cyclotron facility near Tehran. This production process does not involve uranium however, so it is not part of the current nuclear “crisis” with the West).
The problem today is that Iran’s TRR is running out of fuel (which is made of LEU at 19.5%) and the production of isotopes is therefore at risk. The way to solve this problem is at the origin of the current crisis.
Several solutions are possible:
Any one of those solutions, if implemented, would provide Iran with medical isotopes and ensure its patients receive appropriate care, and therefore, solve the crisis. But they all have some problems, either real, or related to international politics:
Partly because of such concerns, Tehran proposed that the swap could take place on Iranian soil and the LEU would leave Iran only when the fuel is delivered. As Siddharth Varadarajan put it, this would look something like this:
At a certain date, when French fabrication of the TRR fuel starts, the IAEA could take into its custody an equivalent amount of Iranian LEU and hold it, in escrow, inside Iran. When the TRR fuel is ready, the Iranian LEU can be loaded onto a plane, which would take off once the French fuel lands inside Iran. At the end of the day, the outcome for the U.S. from a simultaneous swap would be the same as from a sequential swap: Iranian LEU stocks would have been depleted.
But Obama, instead of jumping on the opportunity to close the deal, said he was disappointed with Iran, and called for sanctions--for a change.
But one problem with importing isotopes is that world supply in the future may not be as reliable as it once was; and even if it remains reliable, Iran could still prefer to be self-sufficient and produce its own isotopes. Is the US right to say that it would be more responsible not to enrich uranium to 20%? One could certainly argue the case—but one could also argue, more strongly, that it would be more responsible for those states that have nuclear weapons to eliminate them, their obligation under the NPT, and convince Israel to eliminate its own nukes and join the NPT. That would certainly contribute to defusing the crisis.
In sum, the latest chapter in the Iranian nuclear dossier can be solved in more than one way. Although technicalities are important, we should nevertheless not forget that there would be no crisis if Western governments, and primarily the United States, had not created it in the first place.
Julien Mercille is lecturer at University College Dublin, Ireland. He specializes in U.S. foreign policy and geopolitics. He can be reached at jmercille[at]gmail[dot]com.
 Ghannadi Maragheh et al., “Industrial-scale production of 99mTc generators for clinical use based on zirconium molybdate gel”, Nuclear Technology Vol. 169, March 2010. See also Davarpanah et al., “Influence of drying conditions of zirconium molybdate gel on performance of 99mTc gel generator”, Applied Radiation and Isotopes Vol. 67, 2009.
Iran now produces domestically two important medical isotopes with the TRR: technetium-99 and iodine-131.
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