Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iran: Independent Nuclear Physicist Evaluates Nuclear Program

Iran's heavy-water facility at Arak (file photo) (Fars) May 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Frank Barnaby is a consultant on nuclear Issues for Oxford Research Group -- an independent nongovernmental group in Britain that works to promote a sustainable approach to global security.

A nuclear physicist by training, Barnaby began working on atomic-weapons research himself in 1951. He also works as an independent defense analyst and author on military technology. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz spoke with him about Iran's disputed nuclear program.

RFE/RL: The Iranian government says its nuclear program is only for peaceful civilian purposes. The United States and European Union countries allege it is trying to develop nuclear weapons in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). What does Iran still need to do to be capable of building nuclear weapons?

Frank Barnaby: Well, they need access to fissile material -- either highly enriched uranium or plutonium. You must have one of those two to make a nuclear weapon. Iran is enriching uranium at Natanz in what they maintain is a civil nuclear facility. They say they want to enrich it to 3.5 percent in uranium 235 to use as fuel in nuclear power reactors.

It would be crazy to drive Iran out of the Nonproliferation Treaty. It's much better to have them in because there are inspections going on. It is perfectly true that Iran may be hiding things. Who knows. But if they leave the Nonproliferation Treaty, there would be no inspections

They have a nuclear reactor just completed by the Russians and they plan to have several more at a place called Bushehr. On the other hand, if you are able to enrich uranium to that degree -- to the 3.5 percent -- you could theoretically simply send the uranium round and round the enrichment facility until it is enriched at over 90 percent, which is what you need for nuclear weapons. Iran does have facilities for enriching uranium. It has 1,300 centrifuges operating, according to the IAEA, and plans to have many more.

RFE/RL: Can Iran produce or obtain plutonium needed to build nuclear weapons?

Barnaby: So far as plutonium is concerned, Iran is building a research reactor using heavy water as the coolant at a place called Arak. And that reactor is to replace the old 1967 research reactor [sold to Iran by the United States], which is now at the end of its life. And they want to replace it with a heavy-water reactor, which is fair enough. They need isotopes for medical and industrial purposes. And that Arak reactor will produce those isotopes. On the other hand, a heavy-water reactor is an excellent reactor to produce good plutonium for nuclear weapons. So they would then have the facility to use that reactor to get plutonium for nuclear weapons. However, they would have to have a chemical reprocessing set up to remove the plutonium from the spent reactor fuel elements. So that's another stage in the process. But they could do that. And also, the Bushehr reactor which the Russians have just built -- and the Russians seem to be delaying the operation -- but when it operates, it will produce plutonium which, once again, could be chemically separated from the spent fuel elements and used for nuclear weapons. So Iran is on the trajectory which would give her both highly enriched uranium and plutonium, either of which they could use for nuclear weapons.

'More Likely 10 Years' From Weapons

RFE/RL: The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Muhammad el-Baradei, said this week that Iran could be able to build nuclear weapons within three to eight years if it makes the political decision to focus on the process. Do you think Iran is three years away from that capability, or closer to eight years away?

Barnaby: They are quite a long number of years away from that. So I think it would take them longer than three to five years. I think it's more likely to be 10 years. So there is time for diplomacy to operate to try to prevent or delay the Iranians from getting nuclear weapons.

RFE/RL: What kind of delivery system would be able to carry the kind of nuclear weapon that you think Iran could produce in 10 years?

Barnaby: Once Iran is able to make a nuclear warhead, it then has to miniaturize that to be able to carry it on its surface-to-surface missiles. It's really the only sensible way of delivering a nuclear warhead. And that miniaturization process would take more time. So the time taken for Iran to get a deliverable nuclear weapon is significantly longer than the time that it would take to get a more primitive nuclear weapon.

RFE/RL: There are reports that while Russia is helping Iran to build nuclear reactors at Bushehr, it also is becoming upset about Iran's ability or willingness to finance projects there. What is your take on Russia's position?

Barnaby: The Russians have a great financial stake in Bushehr. Under the contract, the Russians are obliged to provide the fuel for it and also to take the spent fuel elements back to Russia and, maybe, reprocess them there. So it's a very odd situation. The Russians do argue that the Iranians are holding up the finances. But that's really a very hard thing to believe. And I imagine the Russians are under pressure from the United States and EU countries to delay the startup of the plant.

'A Relatively Small Step'

RFE/RL: How would the situation be changed by Russian deliveries of nuclear fuel for nuclear power reactors at Bushehr? Could Iran use that fuel to build nuclear weapons?

Barnaby: If they do deliver this fuel -- 3.5-percent-enriched uranium 235 -- for a nuclear weapon, you need 90-percent-enriched uranium. If you've got 3.5-percent-enriched uranium, that's a long way towards the 90 percent. About 75 percent of the energy required to go to 90 percent is used to go to 3.5 percent. To go from 3.5 percent to 90 percent is a relatively small step. Probably, countries are wondering whether if the Russians deliver this 3.5-percent-enriched fuel, Iranians would be able to take it and just complete the enrichment to 90 percent. That is a possibility. It's a very long shot. It seems to me very much better to take the Iranians at face value -- that they are interested, at the moment, in civil nuclear programs. We have no evidence that they are not and that that is untrue. We should negotiate, to stop them from going to get weapons-usable fissile material. That would be the most sensible plan. What else can you do? If you bomb them, if you try and destroy their nuclear facilities, then you will in fact accelerate the program. The Iranians would get nuclear weapons much [more quickly] if you bomb them because their program at the moment is fairly broad. It's a big program -- industrial-scale, almost. And if they are bombed, they may then focus on getting nuclear weapons. And that would be a small program. They would be able to do that rather rapidly. So it would be much better to leave them as they are -- not take any military action. But to try by diplomacy to prevent them from going for nuclear weapons.

RFE/RL: [Muhammad] el-Baradei has argued that steps should be taken to keep Iran in the Nonproliferation treaty -- that Iran should be allowed to continue its enrichment activities, but on a limited scale and under strict safeguards so that the uranium produced cannot be diverted to military use. Critics argue that Iran's refusal to allow inspectors to carry out all of their work already has underminded the Nonproliferation Treaty. What is your view?

Barnaby: It would be crazy to drive Iran out of the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty. It's much better to have them in because there are inspections going on. Now it is perfectly true that Iran may be hiding things from the inspectors. Who knows. But if they leave the Nonproliferation Treaty, there would be no inspections. We would have no information because most of the information we have at the moment is coming from the IAEA. If they are not there, we'll have no information at all and Iran may then rush towards a nuclear weapon capability and we wouldn't know about it. That's a much worse situation than have the inspectors there. Every effort should be made to keep Iran within the Nonproliferation Treaty.

RFE/RL Exclusive Interviews

RFE/RL Exclusive Interviews

U.S. Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes being interviewed by RFE/RL in Prague on June 11 (RFE/RL)

AT THE MICROPHONE. RFE/RL frequently conducts in-depth interviews with leading newsmakers and analysts from throughout its broadcast region. Transcripts of many of these interviews have been gathered on a special archive page.

Recent Highlights:

Romanian President Traian Basescu | On EU aspirations

Georgian Integration Minister Giorgi Baramidze | On Georgia's relations with NATO, EU

U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Gregory Schulte | On Iran's nuclear program

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov | On relations with Uzbekistan

Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma | On the return to power of Viktor Yanukovych