On the news, we watch a glacier piece collapse into the ocean with a sad groan, Godzilla brought to its knees by the clever humans. These and other images of global warming have reopened the case worldwide for nuclear power generation. The glow of the Chernobyl incident fading in our minds, the world no longer looks upon nuclear energy as a pariah technology, particularly since new generations of reactor designs promise to remedy the problem of long lived radioactive wastes, the atom’s most serious offense. As forward looking nations plan their economies to bypass fossil fuels, shifting more of their research efforts towards nuclear technology, countries that do not follow the trend are in danger of obsolescence. Having once learned the lessons of technological backwardness, the Iranian public does not wish to repeat the same mistake. This is why even the most moderate, pro-Western Iranians view limitations on Iran’s nuclear research as a cheating attempt to keep Iranians in the dark ages. Unfortunately Iran’s hurry-up-and-catch-up nuclear program does repeat the same mistake. Iran should augment its current effort to reconstruct the nuclear technologies of the previous century by beginning a leap frog endeavor to research and implement twenty first century reactor designs.
France, Japan, Russia and South Korea, for example, are working on advanced burner reactors that yields many times more energy per pound of nuclear fuel than conventional reactors. More importantly, the waste from these reactors drops to safe levels of radioactivity in a few hundred years instead of the tens of thousands of years for conventional reactor designs. Due to their extreme efficiency, advanced burner reactors will dramatically reduce the need for nuclear fuel. So if Iran is really planning on becoming a nuclear fuel exporter, as she claims when explaining her uranium enrichment program, she should keep in mind that such fuel is unlikely to command a high price on the future market. In fact, as long-lived nuclear waste from its obsolete reactors builds up, Iran may have to pay countries with more advanced nuclear technologies to ‘burn’ this waste into less hazardous materials.
Does this mean that Iran should abandon its uranium enrichment plans? Quite the contrary. Advanced nuclear research requires this step. But with a clear and logically spelled out economic plan justifying the research, it is much easier to convince the world that the enrichment is for peaceful purposes. The current Iranian effort, which from the outside looks like a beeline towards obtaining weapons grade uranium is vulnerable to pressure from Western powers. But in the context of state-of-the-art research, the burden of proof falls on the West to demonstrate that it’s objections are not part of a conspiracy to impede the technological and scientific progress of the poorer nations.
A shift in emphasis from obsolete to newer reactor designs will introduce tough challenges for Iranian scientists and engineers, slowing the uranium enrichment aspect of the project. This is a highly desirable outcome for everyone. To the Iranian, the slowdown will no longer appear as bending under Western pressure. It is an inevitable part of Iran’s contribution towards advanced nuclear technology. To the rest of the world it demonstrates that the country is serious about all aspects of nuclear power, not just uranium enrichment. And, it is important to reassure some factions in Iran, that serious scientific work in nuclear power generation does not take away Iran’s option of developing nuclear weapons as a deterrent. In fact, an Iran that is seen to be contributing to the overall welfare of humanity can take responsible measures to protect itself without alarming the world community. There is everything to gain and nothing to lose in launching a program to develop next-generation nuclear reactors in Iran.