What if Iran isn’t Lying? Nuclear Energy could Greatly Reduce CO2

By: Joe Eggleston, Associate

The Islamic Republic of Iran has maintained that it never sought a nuclear bomb and now says it never will.[1] For years, the world has almost uniformly rejected that claim as a lie. In May of 2011, President Obama authorized further sanctions on Iran[2] for enriching uranium to nearly twenty percent purity.[3] Most nuclear reactors used to produce electricity run on four percent uranium.[4] Much of the world has interpreted Iran’s ambitions to enrich twenty percent uranium as the penultimate step to producing ninety percent uranium—weapons grade uranium.[5]

The U.S. has implemented regulations including banning investment in Iran, limiting imports and exports,[6] and limiting loans to certain individuals and companies involved with Iran.[7] These regulations in conjunction with other UN member countries’ sanctions have been effectively shrinking Iran’s economy.[8] Oil exports have dropped forty percent and oil revenue fell twenty-seven percent.[9]

Iran responded this September, announcing it has reduced its twenty percent uranium stockpile from 240 kg to 140 kg (250 kg is required for a nuclear bomb) and requesting that the U.S. and other countries lift the sanctions.[10] If Iran is telling the truth about their lack of nuclear bomb ambitions,[11] the international community should find a way to support their nuclear energy plan.

Iran is the world’s seventh largest emitter of CO2,[12] and the country faces an increasing electricity demand.[13] Iran emits over five million tons of CO2 a year from coal electricity generation alone.[14] Nuclear energy, however, does not emit CO2 or other greenhouse gases.[15] If Iran can obtain a reliable source of enriched uranium, Iran has plans that will reduce its CO2 emissions by 9 million tons—the equivalent of taking 1.7 million cars off the road.[16]

Iran began enriching uranium because of a long history of unreliable access to enriched uranium fuel. The U.S. supplied Iran with its first nuclear reactor called the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) in 1967 along with a small amount of ninety percent enriched uranium (weapons grade).[17] Iran quickly spent that uranium, and for two decades sought uranium from the French and other countries to supply the TRR.[18] It was not until 1988 that Argentina converted the TRR to run on twenty percent uranium and gave Iran approximately a twenty-year supply of uranium.[19] Then in February 2012, for the first time, Iran started using indigenously-produced twenty percent uranium in the TRR.[20]

Iran now has enough twenty percent uranium to operate the TRR for 7.5-15 years.[21] If the international community could agree to allow Iran to maintain a reserve of enough twenty percent uranium for the TRR, it could save the world 30,000 tons of CO2 a year.[22] Later this year, Iran plans to begin operating a 915 MW nuclear reactor at Bushehr, with construction planned for a second reactor called Bushehr 2.[23] There are also plans for a 360 MW reactor at Darkhowin.[24] These four nuclear reactors could end Iran’s consumption of coal electricity and reduce Iran’s CO2 emissions by over nine million tons.[25] If the U.S. and the international community demand Iran stop enriching uranium, it could jeopardize Iran’s reliable supply of enriched uranium and prevent much needed reduction in global CO2 levels. To achieve this reduction, the U.S. and international community should strongly consider enforcing a maximum twenty percent uranium stockpile and use international monitors at nuclear facilities with the new Iranian government, instead of scrapping the enrichment altogether.


[1] Dan Roberts, Hassan Rouhani: Iran Will Never Seek to Build Nuclear Weapons, The Guardian, Sept. 19, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/19/iran-nuclear-weapons-rouhani.
[2] Exec. Order No. 13574, 76 Fed. Reg. 30505 (May 23, 2011). The President relied on powers vested in him pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 as amended by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010.
[3] Carol J. Williams, Iran Announces Deep Cut in Enriched Uranium Stockpile, L.A. Times, Sept. 13, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-iran-nuclear-uranium-conversion-20130913,0,6501869.story. For purposes of this blog, “twenty percent uranium” will refer to the concentration of the fissile isotope uranium-235.
[4] Peter Crail, Iran Raising Uranium-Enrichment Level, Arms Control Association (March 5, 2010), http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2010_03/IranEnrichment.
[5] Id.
[6] Office of Foreign Assets Control, Department of the Treasury, Iran: What You Need To Know About U.S. Economic Sanctions (Jan. 23, 2012), available at http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/pages/iran.aspx.
[7] Office of Foreign Assets Control, Department of the Treasury, Authorizing the Implementation of Certain Sanctions Set Forth in the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996, as Amended (Apr. 15, 2013), available at http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/pages/iran.aspx.
[8] M. Hashem Pesaran, Iran Sanctions: Now is the Time to Negotiate, The Guardian, Sept. 17, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/17/world-powers-negotiate-nuclear-iran.
[9]Sanctions Reduced Iran’s Oil Exports and Revenues in 2012, U.S. Energy Information Administration, http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=11011  (last updated Apr. 26, 2013).
[10] Williams, supra note 3.
[11] Id.
[12] Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions by Nation: World’s countries ranked by 2010 total fossil-fuel CO2 emissions, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/top2010.tot (last visited Sept. 20, 2013).
[13]Iran: Overview / Data, U.S. Energy Information Administration, http://www.eia.gov/countries/country-data.cfm?fips=IR  (last updated Mar. 28, 2013).
[14] See id. (using coal consumption data); see also Clean Energy: Air Emissions, U.S. EPA, http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-and-you/affect/air-emissions.html (last updated June 20, 2013). This number does not include emissions from mining, cleaning, and transporting coal to the power plant.
[15] Clean Energy: Air Emissions, supra note 14. This number does not include emissions from mining and transporting uranium.
[16] See Iran: Overview / Data, supra  note 13 (assuming Iran would eliminate its use of coal generated electricity, before cutting into its natural gas usage); see also Clean Energy: Air Emissions, supra note 14; Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, EPA, http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-resources/calculator.html#results (last updated Sept. 2013).
[17] Tehran Research Reactor, Nuclear Threat Initiative, http://www.nti.org/facilities/182/ (last updated Aug. 23, 2013).
[18] Nuclear Power in Iran, World Nuclear Association, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-G-N/Iran/#.UjxtW8Yqgsc (last updated Aug. 30, 2013).
[19] Nuclear Threat Initiative, supra note 17.
[20] Id.
[21] Tehran Research Reactor Requirements, Institute for Science and International Security, http://www.isisnucleariran.org/static/444/ (last visited Sept. 21, 2013).
[22] Clean Energy: Air Emissions, supra note 14. This number was calculated using the EPA’s coal emissions rate of 2,249 lbs of CO2/MWh and assuming the TRR operated at sixty percent capacity for the year.
[23] World Nuclear Association, supra note 18.
[24] Id.
[25] See supra note 16.

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