And there’s yet another aspect affecting this, and it’s the radioisotope industry. Radioisotopes are radioactive and thus unstable which means that they decay away over time. That’s why they’re not found in nature; the Earth is too old, so they can only be obtained by making them in nuclear reactors. Mostly they’re not made in power reactors. Mostly they’re made in “research reactors”, university reactors and isotope production reactors.
Inside MIT’s Nuclear Reactor – eighteen minutes. I love the bit at 12:47 where the interviewer asks the young student reactor operator if she knows what every single control does!
Radioisotopes have all sorts of uses. Caesium is needed for X-ray machines. Radioisotopes are used in silicon chip manufacture, and inspecting metals for fatigue and welds for imperfections. Americium is the smoke detector in smoke alarms. Some are used as tracers, and there are loads with medical uses. Some are used in long term power sources for satellites and spacecraft. Not many countries produce them and it’s a lucrative business.
This is probably why there was so much fuss about Iran’s uranium enrichment programme. Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty NNPT, which gives the country the right to enrich uranium. Normally one of the nuclear cartel corporations does it, so they were probably one source of pressure. The NNPT confers the right to make “Low Enriched Uranium” LEU, which is anything up to 20% U235 (ie. 80% U238), but most enrichment for power reactors is only up to 5%. Weapons grade is 90% and over.
Iran were enriching to 20% to run their research and isotope production reactor. It was all open to scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA of the United Nations; it was all above-board and proper. Iran even voluntarily undertook an “additional protocol” so that they were more thoroughly inspected by the IAEA than all the other countries with nuclear activities. Their nuclear sites were monitored with closed circuit television by the IAEA. The IAEA said that no nuclear materials were being “diverted” ie. going missing, and the US intelligence agencies said that Iran was definitely not building or developing nuclear weapons, but there was this massive anti-Iran propaganda campaign.
So I reckon most of the incentive for all the fuss was to keep Iran out of the isotope production business.