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Von Hippel, at PPPL, calls for international control of nuclear enrichment

The world’s nuclear enrichment programs should be under international control to prevent the development of nuclear weapons after the new arms deal with Iran expires in 10 to 15 years, said Frank von Hippel, a senior Princeton University research physicist and a former security advisor during the Clinton Administration.

“We have 10 to 15 years to strengthen the non-proliferation machine,” von Hippel said, speaking at the Ronald E. Hatcher Science on Saturday public lecture Jan. 30 at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

Von Hippel said security analysts at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, which he founded, had some input into the deal. But their idea of establishing multinational oversight was rejected. “I think it was probably too complex to be negotiated in the time frame that the deal was negotiated,” he said.

Von Hippel was one of 29 top scientists around the country to sign a letter endorsing the Iran deal, saying that it “will advance the cause of peace and security in the Middle East and can serve as a guidepost for future non-proliferation agreements.”

“I do think that it was actually remarkable and the pressure cooker in which this happened was remarkable,” von Hippel said during his lecture.

Difficulties go back to 1953

Iran’s difficulties with the United States go back to 1953 when the CIA helped depose Iran’s democratically elected government, von Hippel said. Decades later in 1979, Iranians overthrew the shah and took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 66 American diplomats and citizens hostage. The U.S. government imposed sanctions that year and added more sanctions in subsequent years. The sanctions were lifted last month after International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors verified Iran was complying with the terms of the nuclear deal. 

The deal was aimed at preventing Iran from creating an atomic bomb using either uranium or plutonium. Uranium mined from the earth contains only 0.7 percent (seven-tenths of 1 percent) U-235, the isotope used to fuel nuclear reactors and make bombs. Therefore, it must be enriched using centrifuges, von Hippel said. Bomb-grade uranium is enriched to above 90 percent and most power reactors use uranium that is enriched up to 5 percent. Iran was processing a higher-grade uranium of up to 20 percent. “My own view is they never decided to make a weapon but they wanted a nuclear weapons option,” von Hippel told the crowd.

Atomic bombs can also be created with plutonium, which is made when uranium is irradiated in a nuclear reactor. It would take about 8 kilograms of plutonium to create a powerful nuclear weapon, a process that would take about 200 days, von Hippel said.  

Evidence that Iran was enriching uranium emerged in 2002, von Hippel said. That’s when a satellite shot images of the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Plant. The evidence led IAEA officials to demand Iran stop producing uranium, but Iran went on to build two more nuclear facilities. Von Hippel showed satellite images of the Arak reactor taken in 2005 and the Fordow underground enrichment facility taken in 2009. Fordow was designed for 2,7000 centrifuges and produced 20 percent uranium.

Iran’s nuclear program and U.S. sanctions continued until two years ago. Despite President Barack Obama’s declaration that he was willing to negotiate with Iran after he was elected in 2008, there was little progress in a nuclear deal until 2013, von Hippel said. That’s when Iran elected President Hassan Rouhani and negotiations for a deal began, von Hippel said.

Reducing centrifuges

The agreement calls for the Fordow plant, which is buried deep underground, to be transformed into a scientific research center. The Natanz plant will continue operating but the number of centrifuges will be reduced from 10,000 to 5,000 and uranium enrichment will be limited to 3.7 percent, von Hippel said. The number is well below the 7,000 centrifuges needed to create enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon, von Hippel said. The Arak plant will be converted into a research facility.

Iran also agreed to limit its supply of low-enriched uranium to 200 kilograms for 15 years. Iran agreed to ship spent nuclear fuel out of the country and promised not to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Von Hippel said, in his opinion, the “obvious heroes” of the deal are President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, whom von Hippel referred to as “the poor president and the poor secretary of state who had to deal with a lot of opposition, not only with Iran but also from Israel and the Republicans.” 

On the Iranian side, von Hippel said he believes the heroes are President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Both are western-educated and both understand the world much better than Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader, who has never been out of Iran, he said. Both leaders also had to deal with internal negotiations in their country to get the deal approved.

The local hero

Von Hippel credited Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a research scholar in the Science & Global Security program at Princeton, as the “local hero” of the Iranian deal. Mousavian is a former diplomat for Iran who was head of the Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s National Security Council. He served as an expert consultant who was able to “explain Tehran to Washington and Washington to Tehran.”  He added: “I don’t think we would have gotten to the agreement if Mousavian hadn’t been involved.”

But von Hippel said the nuclear deal is obviously limited by its timeframe. “We solved the problem for 10 to 15 years but we haven’t solved the problem forever,” he said.

The Science on Saturday lectures are held each Saturday at PPPL at 9:30 a.m. but seats fill up quickly, so plan to get there early. They can also be streamed live from home at https://mediacentral.princeton.edu/id/1_wdp1m3et. You can view archives of the lectures at http://www.pppl.gov/sos-listing. If Science on Saturday is canceled due to inclement weather or other emergency, an announcement will be posted on the PPPL website at pppl.gov and a message will be left on the Science on Saturday Hotline, (609) 243-2121.

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.



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Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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