The recent UN tussle with Iran is based on the assertion that Iran's new uranium plant is intended to produce enriched uranium
; Iran claims that uranium is meant for nuclear power plants, but the Western powers (mostly the US) claim that it is a precursor to weapons development.
On the one hand, it is true that they would not need enriched uranium for a power plant; indeed, natural uranium (that is, uranium wherein the ratio of U235 to U238 hasn't been modified) is much easier to produce and handle, and from the very first
, several power plant designs (especially the proposed sub-critical-reactor
designs, as well as some pebble-bed-reactor
designs) use it specifically to avoid the problems with enriched uranium. Indeed, historically there were 'reactors' which formed in nature
from uranium deposits (though at the time the naturally occuring percentage of U235 was much higher than today, since U238 has a longer half-life). Any country which was looking to develop peaceful nuclear power would find it much cheaper and easier to use natural uranium fuel rather than enriched fuel.
On the other hand, enrichment need not be for weapons use; many power plants use a limited enrichment of about 3% (the same as in the naturally occuring 'reactor') to make it easier to sustain and moderate the reaction. A plant capable of enriching uranium to 3% does not necessarily have the capacity to enrich to the 70% required for weapons development; it becomes progressively more difficult to separate the isotopes as the percentage increases. Again, I have heard conflicting claims about this regarding the Iranian plant.
On the gripping hand, I've recently heard at least two people claim that the Iranian factory isn't
designed to enrich uranium, but merely refine it (purify it and form it into fuel pellets). Supposedly, the Bush administration and other Western governments involved are mistranslating the Iranian announcements (either intentionally or due to projection of expectations onto the text), creating an appearance of a threat that isn't really there. True, the people who made such claims were, to say the least, not the most reliable sources of information, but when I heard the same thing from two unconnected people, I had to wonder if this was at least a rumor going around. Certainly it goes against everything I'd heard about it up until now, and it goes against the known facts (e.g., the plan to purchase a number of industrial centrifuges, which would be one of the means to enrich uranium but wouldn't be necessary for refining) as well. Has anyone else heard anything about this, and can anyone confirm or (as I suspect is more likely) refute the assertion?
(BTW, I recently heard that the reason that Iran changed it's name in the 1930s was as a show of support for fascism - according to Wikipedia
, which claims that there is a standing controversy over the name, 'Iran' is the Farsi word meaning of 'Land of the Aryans', a term which before the Nazis grabbed it referred to the inhabitants of Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India. The connection to Germany, as I understand it, came from popular articles garbling some of the theories about the Indo-European migrations, and especially Schliemann's work regarding 'Troy'. I'm not sure that this was really the reason that Reza Shah Pahlavi
changed the country's name or not but it would make a certain amount of sense given the friction at the time between Persia and the British Empire over Mesopotamia (Iraq). The Wikipedia article on the country doesn't mention this, but the article on Reza Shah supports the claim. Again, confirmation or refutation would be appreciated.)