Monday, September 10, 2007

Iran Alarm Bell

Here's something you want to keep on your radar. I don't think it rises to the level of adding to part of the Iran WarWatch series, but it could be a marker on the road to further conflict around the Persian Gulf.

Production line for Mo99-tc99m radiopharmaceutical launched: AEOI

TEHRAN, Sept. 9 (MNA)-- The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran announced on Sunday that the mass production of Molybdenum 99 - technetium 99m radiopharmaceutical has started and medical centers will be supplied with the drug within a few days.

“The therapeutic compound, which is used for diagnosing many diseases, including those that require a scan from heart muscles, marrow, salivary glands, thyroid, parathyroid, lungs, liver, kidney etc. has been thoroughly produced by Iranian scientists and the alumni of national universities,” Dr. Mohammad Ghannadi, the chairman of research center for nuclear science and technology, told reports at a press conference on Sunday.

In 120 centers for nuclear medicine in Iran, 10,000 patients use this radiopharmaceutical every week, Ghannadi said, adding that from the next week on the nuclear research center will supply two third of the country’s need for this compound, Ghannadi stated.

“Production of this compound at home was important not only in terms of technical (progress) but also in terms of economic saving,” he noted.

Iran used to spend over $3 million a year to import required amounts of Mo99-tc99m, but now a significant proportion of the country’s need can be produced at home, he explained.

No big deal, right? Just some nuclear medicine work, so who cares.

Mo-99 (which means it has an atomic weight of 99 - naturally occuring isotopes of elements differ in the number of neutrons held in the nucleus - they have the same chemical properties, but different nuclear properties) is unstable decays down into Tc-99m which gives off a low-energy gamma ray that is easy to pick up using special medical detector devices. It's been used for decades to help diagnose a huge range of diseases and cancers. We speak in terms of Mo-99 because it has a half-life of 2.7 days while Tc-99m only has a half-life of 6 hours. You can process and ship Mo-99, knowing that all the while it is constantly cranking out the Tc-99m you need (this is the basis for a Tc-99m Generator).

Get to the point? Okay. There are two main methods to make Mo-99. In the first method, called the "n-gamma" process, natural molybdenum (24% Mo-98) or molybdenum highly enriched in the Mo-98 isotope, is placed in a nuclear reactor and bombarded with neutrons. This creates a significant percentage of Mo-99 that can then be processed and used in Tc-99m Generators. This is not the process used by most major manufacturers these days.

The way to make significant amounts is to take thin foils of uranium and place them in a reactor. It is most efficient to use highly-enriched uranium (something above 20% in the U-235 isotope, the isotope that is of concern to bomb-makers), but low-enriched uranium has been proven to work and theoretically natural uranium can be used as well. The foils sit in the reactor. They are hit by neutrons and the Uranium-235 splits apart (fissions). Six percent (6%) of the time, this creates Mo-99. Then, after a few days, you take the foils out, put them in an acid bath and, using a variety of chemical carriers and separation steps, you isolate the Mo-99 in almost pure form. This is then made into Tc-99m Generators that are more efficient than the "n-gamma" ones.

Why Worry?

Why this matters - that means, if the Iranians are producing Mo-99 via the fission process and are able to do it in large quantities, they have mastered at least some of the skills necessary to do radioisotope separation. This is very important if you want to accumulate plutonium to make your own bomb. You can do this by putting a lot of uranium-238 in a reactor. The U-238 picks up neutrons and, usually, instead of fissioning, transmutes into plutonium-239, the isotope of interset to people who want to make nuclear weapons. The Israelis and North Koreans followed this path (as did the U.S. in the Fat Man device that was exploded over Nagasaki) in their weapons programs.

The Iranians do not appear to be following the plutonium bomb path. They seem intent on focusing on enriched uranium (enriched in U-235). So why worry? A few reasons.

First, they could be hedging their bets, just like the U.S. did in the Manhattan Project. Two different bomb types, two different paths to follow to produce the material needed. Redundancy and flexibility. Iran, in my opinion, is nowhere near the ability to produce Pu-239 in large quantities, but who knows if they've been able to construct some sort of neutron source and are following this path in secret. I'm sure there are a lot folks at Langley and Fort Meade worried about this as well. Assuming they are using the fission-product Mo-99 process, they are now building up the skill sets to take advantage of this path.

Second, this could be part of a reason for the U.S. to pull the trigger on air strikes. Who knows what other data (correct or not) the U.S. intel services have on Iran's suspected weapons program. This announcement (again, assuming they are using the fission process - I will hunt this down if I can) is an alarm bell ringing loudly that the Persians have some ability and skill with radioisotope separation. If it is incorporated into a bunch of other "signals" coming out of Iran, this could be the straw that breaks the camel's back, so to speak. The chemical process that launched a thousand airstrikes.

Or not. Here's hoping I am making a mountain out of a mole hill. Have a great week, but be prepared for some excitement.

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