A nuclear energy program that benefits the Iranian people

By Siegfried S. Hecker & Abbas Milani for the Bulletin of Atomic the Scientists

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists presents a timely editorial by Siegfried Hecker and Abbas Milani who put forth that the solution to the Iranian enrichment question rests with South Korea’s approach to nuclear energy.

The election of President Hassan Rouhani and external economic pressure brought about the breakthrough interim nuclear deal with Iran that went into effect this week. A long-term resolution of the Iranian nuclear standoff, however, will require both Iran and the world's major powers to alter past approaches.

Iran must move beyond its false nationalism and the misguided notion that uranium enrichment is the sine qua non of peaceful nuclear energy. Iran’s centrifuge program has actually produced embarrassingly little peaceful nuclear benefit, while making other countries rightfully suspect it of developing a nuclear weapon.  

At the same time, Iran’s negotiating partners—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, or P5 + 1—must be more sensitive to the proud history of the Iranian nation. Although external pressure and more technical barriers will remain necessary to prevent Tehran from exercising a nuclear weapon option, the P5+1 should not isolate the country, but offer to incorporate it into the international nuclear energy community by helping it build a viable civilian program.

Such an embrace might be possible if Iran decides not to follow in the footsteps of North Korea, but to adopt instead a model for civilian nuclear development similar to the one South Korea has successfully pursued. Over the past three decades, South Korea has become one of the world's most advanced and successful nuclear energy vendors by focusing development on the economically profitable parts of the nuclear fuel cycle—reactor component fabrication, fuel fabrication, and reactor construction—while eschewing the proliferation-sensitive steps of uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing.

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