Nuclear fusion project promises Iran’s strategic power

Iranian Diplomacy 12 November 2016

Iran’s membership in ITER means that the nuclear club has endorsed Iran’s nuclear capabilities to be at global scales, and the country and accepted the country as an equal partner, writes university professor Azam Mollaei in an article for Iranian Diplomacy.

Recent months have seen discussions on whether the nuclear deal would work or not, with the deal sparking a plethora of analyses most of which swirled around US’ failure to live up to its commitment, highlighting the empty half of the glass. Although US mischiefs standing in the way of lifting sanctions and allowing bank transactions are undeniable, the nuclear deal has taken away excuses used by Western institutions to sideline Iran in regional and global affairs, instead turning the country into an influential player in both scenes.

In the latest episode of a series of nuclear collaborations linked to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) Director-General Bernard Bigot visited Iran and met the country’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi recently. The visit was coordinated in response to an earlier visit to the ITER project in south France by Salehi and Iranian Vice President for Science and Technology Sorena Sattari. On November 5 and after a meeting with Bigot, Salehi told reporters a memorandum of understanding had been signed between the sides and the Islamic Republic would officially join ITER by the end of 2016.

International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, known as ITER, is located in south France near the city of Nice. The project aims to generate cheap, sustainable, and environment-friendly electricity, using fusion in a new nuclear reactor. ITER is a time-intensive project and needs about forty years to reach its goals. In fact, the project plans to see its first nuclear fusion in 2025 and hopes to commercialize somewhere between 2040 and 2050.

Iran’s membership in the project takes place under Annex 3 of the JCPOA, which addresses cooperation between Iran and the P5+1 group on new technologies including nuclear fusion. During Bigot’s Iran visit, a confidentiality agreement was signed between the sides. The parties are going to sign a memorandum of understanding that includes agreed generalities. Upon his return to France, Bigot will report his negotiations and agreements with Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to the ITER council and Iran will officially join ITER afterwards.

Iran’s membership in the project bears multifaceted significance. To begin with, after years of sanction and the West’s hostility against Iran, they have stepped forward and not only visit the country to exchange views on military and political issues in Iraq and Syria, but also acknowledge Iran’s scientific and technical capabilities in the nuclear industry and demand the country’s participation in flagship projects. Iran’s membership in ITER means that the nuclear club has endorsed Iran’s nuclear capabilities to be at global scales, and has accepted the country as an equal.

On the other hand, the membership of Iran, as the owner of the world’s second largest gas reserves and fourth largest oil reserves, in a project aimed to cheap, sustainable and environment-friendly nuclear energy, indicates Iran’s targeted, strategic planning to maintain its regional and global status and power. Iran is aiming to establish its power and guarantee its long-term strategic edge through a forward-looking approach, not only tactically and in the tumultuous present situation but also at a strategic level.

In addition, ITER is a complicated, innovative, cutting-edge program. Unlike nuclear fission in which heavy nuclei such as uranium split to generate energy, the project tries to fusion light elements such as hydrogen to extract energy. Conventional nuclear power plants are used for nuclear fission. It can also be used in nuclear bombs. However, nuclear fusion is a totally different issue, as it requires difficult conditions which only occurs in the cores of stars. In fact, the heat of the sun is the result of nuclear fusion, where hydrogen nuclei fusion into helium to generate energy. Thus, it is quite difficult to provide conditions, on earth, in which hydrogen nuclei can fuse and release energy. The participation of Iranian academicians and researchers in such an innovative project along peers from prominent nuclear states (Russia, USA, China, South Korea, Japan, India and the European Union) will not only improve the Iranian team’s experience, but also help realize the expansion of nuclear knowledge which was from the beginning the main objective behind the country’s nuclear program. It ultimately shows that the nuclear deal was not an end to the advancement of nuclear knowledge in Iran.