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Iran to Step Up Nuclear Fusion Research

The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Saturday that his country is stepping up its research on nuclear fusion in a bid to produce alternative sources of energy. The announcement comes as world powers pressure Tehran to suspend its controversial nuclear activities.

It was not clear why Iran's atomic energy chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, chose this moment to make his announcement.

During a conference on developing alternative energy sources Saturday, Salehi said Tehran plans to build an experimental nuclear fusion reactor. He said that Iran had hired 50 scientists to work on the project, and that $8 million had been allocated for what he called "serious" research.

Nuclear fusion is a process in which light atomic particles, such as hydrogen, are combined to form heavier particles that release a great amount of energy. However, this type of atomic reaction has not been successfully developed for commercial power, despite five decades of intensive research.

In 2006, global powers agreed to spend more than $12 billion to build an experimental fusion reactor in the south of France. That accord was signed by the United States, the European Union, China, India, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

Salehi, who has a doctorate from MIT, claimed that Iran's project would require intense effort, but could provide Tehran with large dividends in diversifying its sources of civilian energy.

He says that nuclear fusion is a new technology, and that it needs intense effort to develop. He adds that it will take 20 to 30 years to commercialize nuclear fusion, but that Iran will try to use its resources to achieve that goal sooner.

Nuclear fusion is also the technology behind thermonuclear explosions used in hydrogen bombs. Such weapons are more powerful than ordinary atomic bombs, which rely on fission reactions.

Iran's nuclear program is already engulfed in a cloud of controversy for enriching uranium, a process than can be used to produce an atomic weapon. Tehran claims that it is enriching uranium for its civilian nuclear program. Western nations suspect Iran is secretly working to develop nuclear weapons.

The United Nations recently imposed a new set of economic sanctions against Iran because of its sensitive nuclear activities.

Asghar Sediqzadeh, who was appointed to run Iran's new fusion research center, told Iranian television that it would take two years to conclude initial studies, followed by another 10 years to design and build a fusion reactor.

Foundation for the Defense of Democracies senior fellow Emanuele Ottolenghi has written extensively about Iran's nuclear program. He argues that it makes more sense that Iran would want to harness nuclear fusion for military than for civilian purposes.

"If the Iranians had this wonderful technological edge over the rest of the world, and they were about to produce a nuclear reactor that does fusion in a commercially viable fashion, bless them," said Ottolenghi. "But, the fact that nobody else has done it so far suggests that maybe the Iranians are up to just playful banter. However, if one looks at what the reality of a military program is, if you want to have thermonuclear weapons, you need to master the technology for fusion. And while fusion is not commercially viable for civilian purposes, fusion allows you to build infinitely more powerful nuclear weapons."

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran's controversial nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz has now produced close to 2.5 tons of low-grade, enriched uranium. The Iranian government claims it now has 17 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium. Experts say that such a quantity could be used to build two nuclear (fission-based) warheads.

Ottolenghi notes that Iran has now produced enough uranium to build fission-based nuclear weapons within a reasonable amount of time, if it chose to do so. The question, he adds, is whether Tehran can work secretly enough to avoid getting caught before reaching its goal.