Monday, October 26, 2009

The Iranian Uranium Conundrum

While the world debates what to do about the uranium program in Iran, many of the proposals being considered don’t quite make economic sense.

Iran’s nuclear power plan would be simple enough if Iran were a stable country. The mountains appear to contain enough uranium to supply the country, and Iran has worked out most of the technology of refining the uranium ore. Building a nuclear power station is a large-scale undertaking, but as it uses technology that has scarcely changed in the last 15 years, it is obviously something Iran could do. And Iran will need the energy. Its oil will largely run out in about 50 years, and even if it did not, it is better off financially if it saves the oil for export. The only reason this would not work is that Iran is a failed state, largely run by competing criminal organizations, and the world does not like to see a material as volatile as uranium in the hands of organized crime.

Yet the proposal to send Iranian uranium overseas for one critical step in refining is conspicuously inefficient. Transporting refined uranium twice as far within Iran, and then around the world and back, does not result in any gains in security. Having uranium change hands so many times does not result in any gains in accountability. At the same time, the costs of transportation eat up a noticeable fraction of the energy value of the uranium.

A less costly and less risky plan might be to have Iran create its own nuclear fuel, but with its processing plant under continuous video surveillance, along with some form of auditing. This has security risks too: anyone who could tap into the video feed could learn practical tips on how to refine uranium. Yet the costs and challenges in keeping a video feed secure are tiny compared to those of protecting uranium containers on the high seas, or even on the highways of Iran.