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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Iran's declining oil and gas production and the nuclear power excuse 



The Wall Street Journal is running a couple of articles this morning that highlight Iran's growing energy crunch. Consumption of electricity and gasoline are rising and the country's production is stagnant to falling because of insufficient capital investment. If present trends continue (always a huge "if" when talking about the supply of and demand for a commodity), within five years Iran's export capacity will fall from around 2.3 million barrels of oil per day to about 1.0 million. The only way to avert that decline is a huge cut in domestic consumption by rationing or the elimination of subsidies for gasoline (which might irritate the public) or a massive infusion of investment capital (which is unlikely without reaching an accomodation with the United States). If you have access to the Journal, both articles are well worth your time.


The front page article does commit at least one grave sin, however. It repeats the Iranian argument for nuclear power as if it were entirely understandable in light of the looming energy crunch:

Avoiding an export squeeze is one reason Iran argues it needs to consider nuclear energy. But that ambition has contributed to a diplomatic impasse with the West. Bush administration officials describe Iran's nuclear program as little more than a ruse to conceal what they say is a hidden effort to build nuclear weapons. Iranian officials deny that, arguing that nuclear plants could handle some of the soaring domestic energy demand, leaving more oil and gas to export and avoiding difficult domestic choices.

Indeed, several other Middle East countries -- including Egypt and the world's largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia -- also are investigating nuclear energy programs, citing similar reasons.

This passage, which goes without elaboration elsewhere in the story, is exceedingly misleading. The world is not worried about Iran's nuclear program per se. The world -- including but certainly not limited to the United States -- believes that Iran's program is a ruse for a weapons program for two very good reasons.

First, Iran has chosen to develop its "power" program using "dual use" technologies that also can produce the raw material necessary for both uranium and plutonium bombs, even though it had less destabilizing alternatives.

The mullahs are building two separate methods for getting to a bomb. Iran is enriching uranium in a centrifuge cascade, and has built a facility large enough to produce sufficient weapons-grade uranium for several bombs per year. It is also building a 40 megawatt "heavy-water" reactor for "research" that will produce plutonium. In both cases, Iran had alternatives that would also produce power but would not put it in a position to build a bomb. Other countries -- including Russia -- have offered to sell Iran enriched uranium nuclear fuel (which is insufficiently enriched for a weapon). Iran could buy a ten-year supply if it were worried about depending on another country (or it could develop multiple sources of enriched uranium from geopolitical rivals). It has refused to consider any of these alternatives, and instead bleats on about "mastering" the nuclear fuel cycle.

Instead of the big "heavy water" plant, Iran could have built a "light-water" reactor that would have been equally valuable for Iran's stated research purposes but which produced only 2% of the plutonium of the heavy-water plant.

Iran could credibly reassure the entire world that it was not trying to build a bomb by rejecting dual-use formats in favor of less threatening nuclear technologies, but it doesn't. There is more background here.

Second, Iran has concealed its nuclear program, both by limiting the access of UN inspectors and through a campaign of misleading public statements about the program. It almost certainly feels that deception is to its geopolitical advantage in its confrontation with the West, but the increased uncertainty makes it impossible for responsible people to accept at face value claims that its nuclear program is "peaceful."

So, when we -- meaning any responsible newspaper or commentator -- explain that Iran may have a legitimate economic need for nuclear technology, let us also explain that there are means to generate atomic power that do not produce the components for weapons, and that Iran has rejected those means and chosen to conceal the development of its dual use technology.

4 Comments:

By Blogger Douglas, at Tue Feb 20, 10:46:00 AM:

They probably do need nuclear energy since they are a "developing nation." But you are right -- the inconsistencies in their story leads one to believe they have more than just energy aspirations.  

By Blogger GerryWolff, at Tue Feb 20, 12:48:00 PM:

Regarding your report "Iran's declining oil and gas production and the nuclear power excuse" (2007-01-20), there is absolutely no need for nuclear power in Iran or anwhere else in the Middle East (or Europe or North Africa) because there is a simple mature technology available that can deliver huge amounts of clean energy without any of the headaches of nuclear power.

I refer to 'concentrating solar power' (CSP), the technique of concentrating sunlight using mirrors to create heat, and then using the heat to raise steam and drive turbines and generators, just like a conventional power station. It is possible to store solar heat in melted salts so that electricity generation may continue through the night or on cloudy days. This technology has been generating electricity successfully in California since 1985 and half a million Californians currently get their electricity from this source. CSP plants are now being planned or built in many parts of the world.

CSP works best in hot deserts and, of course, these are not always nearby! But it is feasible and economic to transmit solar electricity over very long distances using highly-efficient 'HVDC' transmission lines. With transmission losses at about 3% per 1000 km, solar electricity may, for example, be transmitted from North Africa to London with only about 10% loss of power. A large-scale HVDC transmission grid has also been proposed by the wind energy company Airtricity as a means of optimising the use of wind power throughout Europe.

CSP offers substantial benefits to people in North Africa and the Middle East, including desalination of sea water using waste heat from electricity generation - a major benefit in arid regions. In addition, the shaded areas under the solar mirrors can be used for many purposes including horticulture using desalinated sea water. And of course, there would be plentiful supplies of inexpensive, pollution-free electricity and earnings from the export of that electricity to countries with less sunshine.

In the 'TRANS-CSP' report commissioned by the German government, it is estimated that CSP electricity, imported from North Africa and the Middle East, could become one of the cheapest sources of electricity in Europe, including the cost of transmission. That report shows in great detail how Europe can meet all its needs for electricity, make deep cuts in CO2 emissions, and phase out nuclear power at the same time.

Further information about CSP may be found at www.trec-uk.org.uk and www.trecers.net . Copies of the TRANS-CSP report may be downloaded from www.trec-uk.org.uk/reports.htm . The many problems associated with nuclear power are summarised at www.mng.org.uk/green_house/no_nukes.htm .  

By Blogger Dave Schuler, at Tue Feb 20, 12:48:00 PM:

To quote Robert Einhorn on the subject of Iran's HWR, you can use a 12 inch knife to spread marmalade on your bread but that doesn't make it a credible use.  

By Blogger David M, at Tue Feb 20, 04:05:00 PM:

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 02/20/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.  

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