Monday, May 17, 2010

Iran, Brazil And The Quest For The A-Bomb

The United States and key European powers are continuing their push for sanctions against Iran over their nuclear development program, even as talk of a possible deal to ship enriched nuclear fuel out of Iran emerged this morning. Iran’s claim is that they are trying to develop a domestic nuclear program so that they can begin to switch the country over to nuclear power, looking forward to the day when their oil runs out; the US/Europe say this explanation is nonsense. That’s why it’s useful to take a look at this magazine ad dug up by the folks over at RealClearWorld. Printed sometime in the 1970s – and before the Three Mile Island accident, when nuclear power was still seen as the wave of the future – it’s aimed at city managers in the United States; the pitch says that since the Shah of Iran is planning to build nuclear power plants for the day when his country runs out of oil, then you too should consider nuclear for your city’s future.

So the question is that if 30-plus years ago, the Shah of Iran’s plan to build nuclear power plants made so much sense it merited an ad campaign in American magazines, why is it such a ridiculous idea today? Critics will respond by saying that much of the same knowledge/technology you need to build a nuclear power plant is also the same knowledge/tech you need to build an atomic bomb, so the Iranian nuclear power plant plan is just a cover story to hide a nefarious A-bomb production scheme.

They may be right, that Iran’s stated desire for nuclear power may just be an elaborate ruse, but that brings us to the second half of this story, via Der Spiegel magazine. In their May 7 issue they asked the question: “Is Brazil Developing the Bomb?” Three times in their history, Brazil has had secret programs to develop nuclear weapons – each was eventually abandoned. Late in 2008, Brazil released their National Defense Strategy, which called for “mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle” (the same goal Iran has been pursuing) for the eventual goal of building a fleet of Brazilian nuclear submarines. Since then, according to Der Spiegel, Brazil has done its best to keep its nuclear program out of the eyes of international inspectors – much like Iran has done with their program.

And while we’re drawing parallels with Iran, Brazil’s stated goal – mastery of nuclear production to build nuclear submarines - is also a bit sketchy. The purpose of having a nuclear reactor aboard a submarine is to give that vessel the ability to sail for years without refueling (really, the only thing that limits the time a nuclear sub can spend at sea is the amount of food it can carry for the crew). A key mission for the nuclear subs the US and Soviet Union built was to hide out under the ice of the Arctic Circle, perhaps for months at a time, ready to launch missiles should a nuclear war ever break out. It’s true that Brazil has thousands of miles of ocean coastline to patrol, but that mission could be accomplished more simply, and probably more effectively, by diesel-electric submarines that Brazil could build with the technological expertise that they have today. It makes for another dubious rationale for a nuclear program, pair that up with an air of secrecy and you have a situation much like the one we currently have with Iran, yet there has been no similar call for sanctions against Brazil to get them to drop their nuclear program.

Just something to ponder on a Monday.
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