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Sixty Years of “Atoms for Peace” and Iran’s Nuclear Program

A security official stands in front of the Bushehr nuclear reactor, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran (REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi).

On December 8, 1953, President Eisenhower delivered his “Atoms for Peace” speech before the United Nations General Assembly. In his speech, Eisenhower remarked that “…if a danger exists in the world, it is a danger shared by all; and equally, that if hope exists in the mind of one nation, that hope should be shared by all.” Eisenhower recognized the paradoxical danger and promise offered by the atomic age: on one hand, the militarization of the atom for nuclear weapons and, on the other hand, the peaceful utilization of the atom to produce energy. Atoms for Peace provided technology and educational resources for states wanting civilian nuclear programs. As a participant in the program, Atoms for Peace laid the foundation for Iran’s nuclear program beginning in 1957. Today, given the concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, it is worthwhile to examine how much Atoms for Peace contributed to Iran’s nuclear program, specifically the elements that have concerned the international community most.

Hopeful that the peaceful atom could prevail, Eisenhower proposed that “governments principally involved, to the extent permitted by elementary prudence, should begin now and continue to make joint contributions from their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable material to an international atomic energy agency.” Eisenhower’s speech set into motion the creation of the Atoms for Peace program. This visionary program was based on a bargain between the United States and developing states. The United States provided research reactors, fuel and scientific training to developing countries wanting civilian nuclear programs. In exchange, recipient states committed to only use the technology and education for peaceful, civilian purposes.

Today, the implementation of Eisenhower’s vision is still contested. While well intentioned, the Atoms for Peace program has been criticized for facilitating nuclear proliferation by spreading dual use nuclear technology, i.e., technologies and materials, such as highly enriched uranium, used in early civilian nuclear programs that can also be used for the production of nuclear weapons. Some believe that Atoms for Peace set nuclear aspirants, like Iran, on the path to acquiring necessary technologies and materials for the development of a nuclear weapons program.

The Atoms for Peace program provided the foundations for Iran’s nuclear program by providing key nuclear technology and education. Iran’s nuclear program began under Mohamed Reza Shah’s rule in 1957, after the United States and Iran agreed to a civilian nuclear cooperation arrangement, known as the Cooperation Concerning Civil Uses of Atoms, through the Atoms for Peace program. Two years later, the Shah established the Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC), located at the University of Tehran, and began to negotiate with the United States to provide Iran with nuclear technology and materials.

In 1967, the United States supplied Iran with a 5 megawatt nuclear research reactor along with highly enriched uranium to fuel the reactor, housed at the TRNC. The reactor, under safeguards, had the capability to produce up to 600 grams of plutonium per year in spent fuel. Akbar Etemad, deemed the father of Iran’s nuclear program, later revealed that the TNRC was the site of experiments with chemically extracting plutonium. Iran also admitted to using the reactor in the early 1990s for the production of small amounts of Polonium-210, a radioactive substance that can be used to start a chain reaction inside a nuclear weapon.

However, Iran states the production of Polonium-210 was used for research on production of neutron sources to be used in radio isotopic thermoelectric generators, not nuclear weapons. Moreover, the TRNC is thought to be the location of earlier Iranian experiments on enriching uranium through laser isotope separation, a method that Iran appears to have been researching since the mid-1970s. Whatever Iran’s true intentions with the TRNC, it seems clear that the technology provided by the United States allowed Iran to further its nuclear program in ways that went beyond what was originally intended.

In addition to providing technology, the Atoms for Peace program provided the opportunity for Iranians to receive scientific and technological education in the United States. This educational training was crucial to the development of Iran’s nuclear energy program. For example, because Iran lacked large numbers of individuals trained in nuclear engineering and physics, the Tehran research reactor sat idle for nearly a decade, as it did not have adequate manpower to run. The Shah also needed manpower to meet his lofty ambition of rapidly expanding nuclear energy. In 1974, he announced his desire to construct 20 nuclear power reactors in the following 20 years. Subsequently, he called for the establishment of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to control and monitor nuclear energy.

To meet these rising demands, the AEOI concluded an agreement with MIT in 1975 to provide a specialized master’s program to provide Iranians with scientific and technological training on nuclear energy. This program provided Iran with its first set of professional nuclear engineers. In 1976, the Shah raised the budget of the AEOI from $31 million to $1 billion, in part because the he recognized the significance of the training provided to Iranians.

Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the United States abruptly ended its civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran and ended its supply of highly enriched uranium. Despite the termination of Atoms for Peace assistance to Iran, Iran still received support from different sources. While the United States exerted its influence to limit Iran’s collaboration with other states, Iran was still able to find partners to expand its nuclear program, including in areas applicable to the military use of nuclear energy. Particularly influential for the development of Iran’s nuclear program in those areas were Pakistan’s AQ Khan, China and Russia.

First, technology provided by AQ Khan influenced Iran’s nuclear program. In 1985, AQ Khan provided Iran with technical drawings of a P-1 centrifuge, a nuclear technology used to enrich uranium. Then, between 1994 and 1996, AQ Khan gave Iran components for 500 centrifuges and designs for P-2 centrifuges, a more advanced and efficient design that Pakistan currently uses in its own nuclear weapons program. The design originated in Germany in the 1970s and was later stolen by AQ Khan. In 2004, Iranian scientists admitted that they had received the advanced centrifuge designs and subsequently did testing on the centrifuges through a contract with the AEOI at the TNRC. Currently, the P-1 and P-2 centrifuges are used at Iran’s Natanz’s Fuel Enrichment plant, which is Iran’s largest enrichment facility.

Second, China contributed to Iran’s nuclear capabilities. In 1991, China, which was not yet party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, provided Iran with a large quantity of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), or “yellowcake,” a converted form of uranium that is a feedstock material for enrichment; 500 kilograms of uranium tetraflouride; and 400 kilograms of uranium dioxide, without declaration to the IAEA. The Chinese supplied the Esfahan nuclear technology center, recognized as Iran’s largest nuclear research site, with two subcritical reactors—one 27 kilowatt thermal miniature reactor and one heavy water, zero power reactor—between 1992 and 1995. China has also admitted to supplying Iran with a small calutron, a piece of technology central to electromagnetic isotope separation, used to separate uranium. While it was ultimately determined that the calutron was too small to warrant serious concerns about its use, it nonetheless exposed Iran to sensitive technology. Lastly, China provided Iran with key chemicals and technology for Iran to conduct plutonium separation research at the TRNC.

Finally, Russian assistance has shaped Iran’s nuclear program. A Russian firm provided key technology to build what is now the Arak Heavy Water Reactor, a small research reactor in the western part of Iran. The Arak Reactor, which is not yet operational, has been a focal point in the P5 +1 negotiations with Iran because of the reactor’s potential to produce weapons-grade plutonium. In the early 1990s, a Russian research and design institute known as NIKIET provided Iran with the technology for fuel rods for the reactor. The unique design for the fuel rods was a modified version of designs for fuel rods for older Soviet plutonium reactors from the 1940s and 1950s. Another Russian entity from Obninsk is also suspected of providing design assistance for the reactor. Russia ceased its assistance on the Arak reactor in the late 1990s after criticism and diplomatic pressure intensified from the United States.

As we remember the 60th anniversary of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech and its subsequent impacts, we should keep its consequences in perspective. The Atoms for Peace program provided Iran with the foundation for its nuclear program, by providing both key technology for nuclear research and education in nuclear engineering and physics. The program clearly helped Iran move up the nuclear learning curve. However, this picture does not tell the entire story. Even after the cessation of the Atoms for Peace program, Iran successfully received nuclear technology from a variety of other sources, often technology readily applicable to the military dimension of nuclear energy. It was not just the Atoms for Peace program that put Iran on the path that could lead both to civil nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Ultimately, the responsibility falls on Iran. As stated by Jeffrey Lewis, “It’s not the international community’s fault for helping Iran exercise its right in the past. It’s Iran’s fault for not living up to its safeguards obligations.”

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