Polonium?

Sort of a weird development that has many observers scratching their heads – yesterday Reuters published this report in which IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano’s remarks are reported as follows:

The head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, Yukiya Amano, said possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme needed to be clarified and he said his agency also wanted to clarify the issue of small amounts of polonium-210 that had been produced by the Tehran research reactor.

“Polonium can be used for civil purposes like nuclear batteries but can also be used for a neutron source for nuclear weapons,” Amano told the Munich Security Conference.

Fredrik Dahl then wrote up this report about the incident today.

What’s weird about this is that the issue of polonium-210 related experiments in Iran was dealt with in 2008, and this Director General’s report issued in February 2008 contained the following passage concerning the agency’s findings:

 A.3. Polonium-210

20. Polonium-210 is of interest to the Agency because it can be used not only for civilian applications (such as radioisotope batteries), but also — in conjunction with beryllium — for military purposes, such as neutron initiators in some designs of nuclear weapons. On 20–21 January 2008, a meeting took place in Tehran between the Agency and Iranian officials during which Iran provided answers to the questions raised by the Agency in its letter dated 15 September 2007 regarding polonium-210 research (GOV/2007/58, para. 26). The Agency’s questions included a request to see the original project documentation.

21. According to Iran, in the 1980s, scientists from the Tehran Nuclear Research Centre (TNRC) were asked to propose new research activities. A project called “Production of 210Po by the irradiation of 209Bi in the TNRC reactor” was proposed and eventually approved by the Scientific Advisory Committee of TNRC in 1988. The project consisted of fundamental research aimed at enhancing knowledge about this process. According to Iran, it was not aimed at a specific immediate application. However, a potential use in radioisotope batteries, if the chemical extraction of polonium- 210 proved successful, was mentioned in the initial proposal.

22. Iran reiterated that the project was not part of any larger R&D project, but had been a personal initiative of the project leader. According to Iran, the chemist working on the project left the country before full chemical processing had been performed, the project was aborted and the decayed samples were discarded as waste (GOV/2004/11, para. 30).

23. To support its statements, Iran presented additional copies of papers and literature searches that had formed the basis for the request for approval of the project. Iran also provided copies of the project proposal, the meeting minutes and the approval document from the Scientific Advisory Committee of TNRC, as well as a complete copy of the reactor logbook for the entire period that the samples were present in the reactor.

24. Based on an examination of all information provided by Iran, the Agency concluded that the explanations concerning the content and magnitude of the polonium-210 experiments were consistent with the Agency’s findings and with other information available to it. The Agency considers this question no longer outstanding at this stage. However, the Agency continues, in accordance with its procedures and practices, to seek corroboration of its findings and to verify this issue as part of its verification of the completeness of Iran’s declarations. (emphasis added)

So the question people are asking is, if the issue was resolved in 2008, why bring it up again now six years later? It is possible that some new information has been brought to light on the issue. That’s what Mark Hibbs suggests in the Dahl piece. But it still seems strange to bring up an issue involving past experiments with a material that my technical friends tell me is really not at all useful in modern nuclear weapons programs.

What should one read into this decision by Amano to bring this issue up now, in light of the very sensitive stage at which we are currently in diplomacy between Iran and the P5+1, and in parallel between Iran and the IAEA? One possible interpretation is that Amano is bringing up this issue now in order to keep pressure on Iran, to force concessions in the respective negotiating fora. The more cynical interpretation would be that this is a strategy aimed at making a diplomatic settlement in both fora more difficult. It’s difficult for me to see whose interests that would serve, other than of course Israel’s. It’s hard for me to see this as an instance of one of the P5 pulling Amano’s strings. Is he going rogue and interjecting this rather lame and tangential PMD issue into the mix for some reason only he knows/understands? Hard to say. This is a weird one.   

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One Comment on “Polonium?”

  1. yousaf says:

    What this points to is a lack of technical (not to mention managerial and political) skills at the IAEA directorate. It tarnishes the reputation of the IAEA.

    If the IAEA, in conjunction with member nations, thought that Po was remotely dangerous substance vis-a-vis weaponry they could have negotiated to put it under safeguards.

    However:

    http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Factsheets/English/polonium210.html

    “Polonium is not subject to IAEA safeguards.”

    You will note that the above IAEA link makes no mention of possible weaponization uses of Po-210 because while it may have been all the rage to consider using Po-210 initiators during WW II, better methods now exist.

    Amano should consider resigning before he disgraces the IAEA any further and implodes the talks.


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