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5/31/06

Tehran Says It Is Working On Advanced Nuclear Fusion

By Breffni O'Rourke

An official in Iran's Atomic Energy Organization claims his country is researching how to produce energy through nuclear fusion. Fusion is a futuristic method of harnessing nuclear power, differing in concept from the present fission process. But it is still very much an experimental field, with nuclear experts saying practical energy generation from fusion is decades away. So what could be Iran's purpose in spending time and resources in such research? Or could this announcement serve image-boosting purposes in the international row over Iranian uranium enrichment?

PRAGUE, May 30, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Atomic Energy Organization official, Mr. Sadat-Hosseini, said in Tehran that his country is "competing with the advanced world" in seeking to produce energy from nuclear fusion.

The statement came as a surprise in the midst of the grave international dispute over Iran's nuclear fuel-enrichment program, which the United States claims is part of a plan to develop nuclear weapons.

Fusion Also Used For Bombs

Sadat-Hosseini's comment drew immediate media attention, because fusion is a technique used to create the explosion in a hydrogen bomb -- a far more powerful device than the fission atomic bomb.

In comparing fusion with fission, the basic difference is that fission produces energy by splitting the atom. Fusion, on the other hand, fuses atoms together, which give off surplus energy as they combine.

One of the most daunting challenges is that the particles must be heated up to 100 million degrees Celsius to produce the fusing process. But if that process can be sustained reliably, fusion is a generous source of energy, with one kilogram of fusion fuel producing the same as some 10 million kilograms of fossil fuel.

Another advantage of fusion over fission is that it leaves little radioactive residues, one of the main hazards which have caused the public to turn against civilian nuclear power.

Not Viable In Near Future

Although fusion has been achieved on a small scale for very short periods of time, it is far from ready to serve as a civil energy source. Experts say it needs another 30 to 50 years to become a practical tool -- if it ever does.

So what is Tehran's interest in this process?

Stephan Slingerland, of the Clingendahl Energy Program research center in the Netherlands, dismisses the Iranian references to nuclear fusion as "pure political pose."

"Nuclear fusion has been a subject for research for decades already, by the whole international community jointly, having spent billions of dollars, so I don't think that there is a possibility that one individual country could, in a short time, achieve a breakthrough in nuclear fusion," he said.

Experts within the nuclear milieu say the fact that Iran is working on fusion is no surprise. As long ago as 1999, Iran tried to buy a small fusion reactor from the Canadian Center for Fusion Magnetics in Montreal, when the Canadian government closed down that facility.

Another nuclear expert, Mark Fitzpatrick of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says the motive behind Sadat-Hosseini's statement is Iran's desire to display technical achievement.

Why Fusion, Why Now?

"It is part of an effort both to demonstrate for domestic consumption their technological prowess and to build an image of a country that is far along in nuclear technology, so as to persuade the rest of the world that they cannot be rolled back to zero in terms of stopping their [uranium] enrichment program," Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick says there is no technical link between fusion and uranium enrichment, adding that the link is political in that Iran is saying "look how far along we are."

So what about the military possibilities of fusion technology: is Iran perhaps seeking to bypass the enrichment row and instead take a fusion bomb route?

Fitzpatrick says that technologically it "just doesn't make sense."

"In theory it does, but [a fusion bomb] is so far advanced from a rudimentary initial bomb that I presume Iran intends as its first stage, that a fusion bomb is just not in the picture," he added.

The experts from within the nuclear milieu likewise say that making a hydrogen bomb would be five giant steps technically beyond making a fission bomb, and is therefore not presently an issue, insofar as Iran is estimated to be some years away from being capable of producing a fission atomic bomb.


Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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