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By Dr. Raul A. Montenegro, Biologist
Those of us who were in Washington on September 11 were able to verify the lethality of the terrorist acts that were launched against the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. Obviously international business is necessary for Argentina.
But they can also be dangerous when they involve sensitive nuclear technology and missiles capable of carrying war cargo, and the recipients are nations in conflict or with high political instability. Are we aware that our peaceful businesses could accelerate the development of nuclear devices and even the use of chemical weapons in other countries? Does society know how zigzagging and contradictory our nuclear trade has been for the last 25 years? Do we really know where the benefits end for the public companies that encourage these businesses, and when the risks begin for Argentina? We believe not. On May 5, 1987 INVAP and the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization signed an agreement for Argentina to sell it a 20% enriched uranium core. INVAP is the state company based in Río Negro that is mainly managed by the National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA). That first deal with Iran was closed for $ 5.5 million. In September 1988, the International Atomic Energy Agency authorized INVAP to send 115.8 kilograms of uranium to Iran. An independent researcher, Mark Skootsky, maintains that as part of the agreement "Argentina transferred technology and information to Iran" and trained "technicians from that country at the Balseiro Institute" (1).
The serious thing is that the research reactor of the University of Tehran, destination of the uranium, was under suspicion. Several independent works indicated at the time that one of its associated laboratories was in a position to separate plutonium 239 from spent nuclear fuel (2).
Bomb grade 239 plutonium is used precisely for the manufacture of nuclear devices. Also in 1987 INVAP agreed with Iran to build two pilot plants, one for the grinding of uranium ores and the other for the manufacture of fuel elements (4) (5) (6). This is indicated by the works of A. Koch and J. Wolf. Two years later the government of Iran announced that such a milling plant would be built at the Saghand mine (5).
Some of these operations, however, never came to fruition. A document presented by Kenneth Timmerman at the 6th Castiglioncello Conference, in Italy, indicates that on December 13, 1991, the Argentine government decided to suspend a shipment of materials produced by INVAP, which were to be transported to Iran by the Fathulkhair ship. This Iranian ship was in an Argentine port (7).
It was obvious that the frank opening towards Iran was closing. The United States, another country with zigzagging and contradictory nuclear deals, pressed from the outside. According to Richard Kessler of Nucleonics Week, on March 2, 1992, then-President Carlos Saúl Menem ordered INVAP to cancel the shipment of equipment and materials to Iran. Thus he interrupted a nuclear business for 18 million dollars that his own government had encouraged (9). Argentina then argued that Iran did not guarantee the peaceful use of such equipment. The following day, Vice Chancellor Juan Carlos Olima resigned, and INVAP entered a severe financial crisis. According to M. Barletta and C. Ellington, the Argentine exports that were shipwrecked included a pilot plant for the manufacture of heavy water (8). Iran was not the only country affected, however. When Carlos Saúl Menem was governor of La Rioja, he would have promised Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Al Haddam "transfer of nuclear technology." The meeting was held in Yabroud, Syria, four years before the attack on the Israeli Embassy. After being elected president, Menem decidedly aligned himself with the United States, and the promise he made to Syria was never kept.
But Argentina's nuclear business also reached North Africa. INVAP built in Algeria, a country convulsed by civil war, the "Nur" research and training reactor. Opened in April 1989, it has a thermal power of 1 Megawatt. Three years later, in September 1992, INVAP signed another contract, this time with Egypt, for the construction of a 22 megawatt thermal reactor at Inshas. The plant, called ETTR-2, was inaugurated in February 1998 by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and former Argentine President Carlos Saúl Menem. The nuclear plans of Algeria and Egypt were being accused, however, of having clear military purposes. To better understand the risks of these businesses, we have to go to Egypt during the 1980s. That country then had an important but undeclared arsenal of chemical weapons, and encouraged its own nuclear development. The Argentine military government, for its part, had developed a prototype missile called the Condor II (10). Two years after taking office as president, Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín succumbed to negotiations initiated by technical bodies and in 1985 signed a secret agreement with Egypt for the joint development and production of that missile, also known as Badr 2000 in Egypt. The project, called "395" in the Arab countries, was based on the Argentine design, was to use German technology and would be financed by Iraq. Its internationalization once again upset the United States. Last year the specialized publication "The Risk Report" pointed out that between 1987 and 1990 several Egyptian experts had been working in Iraq with the Condor II (10). It was obvious that the missile was associated with its military use. The advantages of the Condor II or Badr 2000 were 1,000 km of range, 500 kg of payload and accuracy of 100 meters. When Alfonsín signed the decree, Egypt was recognized as a producer of chemical weapons, and had already used them during the civil war in Yemen (1963-1967).
The missiles were ideal for carrying light chemical, biological and even nuclear payloads. Didn't anyone realize how dangerous these deals were? Did the Argentine government know that around 1987-1988 Iraq was very upset by the slowness of the Condor II-Badr 2000 project, and with the destination of the funds used? Finally, on July 20, 1990, Carlos Saul Menem yielded to pressure from the United States and dissolved the company Intesa S.A. which had been created in 1987 to develop the missile and export it. Although it never officially flew, the innovative technology of the Condor II fueled the development of other missiles in the Middle East. But let's go back to INVAP. Its zigzagging export policy transferred highly sensitive materials and nuclear technology to highly conflictive areas where warlike and peaceful purposes were confused. There were not even significant economic benefits for the country. Did we ever assume that we were involved in dangerous business? What did we expose ourselves to? How did Iran, Syria and other Arab nations take the abrupt cut in Argentina's supply of nuclear material? To what extent did our absurd intervention in the Gulf War provoke new adverse reactions? To what extent did these motivations and Argentina's vulnerability add us to the list of targets for international terrorism? We do not know. But the attacks on the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA showed that this terrorism can hit us, and very hard. The new threats. This questionable business agenda with warlike interests of other nations ignored that Argentina is a vulnerable country where there are numerous possible targets for international terrorism, including nuclear power plants, petrochemical complexes and large dams. Both past and current governments seem not to notice. Of those targets, the most dangerous are undoubtedly our two nuclear power plants. A recent study carried out by WISE Paris for the European Union makes it possible to assess the magnitude of an attack with commercial aircraft on nuclear facilities. The work, anticipated by the newspaper "Le Monde", indicates that the collision of an airplane against the pools of the reprocessing plant of La Hague, which has 1,745 tons of spent nuclear fuel, would generate a damaging Chernobyl. The interruption of the cooling system would cause 66.7 times more Cesium 137 to be released than in the Chernobyl accident (11). Cesium 137 is one of the many highly radioactive materials present in spent fuel rods. What would happen if a commercial airplane deliberately crashed into the spent nuclear fuel depots that Atucha I or Embalse have? The answer is terrifying. After the containment barriers were breached, the radioactive materials would be exposed. Burning jet fuel would generate a powerful upward convective current that would inject large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The winds would then distribute them to any part of the country. Let us remember that a grade 7 accident at the Embalse or Atucha I nuclear power plants would radioactively contaminate thousands of people and would cause the country's already battered economy to collapse. Our governments, however, seem to ignore the risks. What measures did the provinces of Córdoba and Buenos Aires or the Nation adopt to protect us? Are we really prepared to prevent these events and face their consequences?
The answer is simple: no. Oblivious to these risks that already exist, INVAP added new new problems. Last year, it signed a contract with Australia's ANSTO to build a nationally designed nuclear reactor in Sydney to replace the current HIFAR. As part of the agreement, which remains secret, Argentina must receive the radioactive waste produced by the new reactor. This openly violates Article 41 of the National Constitution. What very few Argentines know is that as of 2015 this exhausted nuclear fuel would come by ship from Sydney, it would cross Cape Horn, and then it would be landed in Bahía Blanca or Buenos Aires. Here it would remain for 15 to 20 years.
After being conditioned at Ezeiza with dilution and vitrification methods, the highly radioactive waste would be returned to Australia via Cape Horn. Such shipments could be the target of terrorist attacks, as each shipment is a potential Chernobyl in motion. Some recent events increase this concern. The Australian reactor that INVAP intends to replace was already targeted by terrorist groups shortly before the 2000 Olympics (12). Reality indicates that we are not prepared to face the consequences of a terrorist attack against those ships or against the trucks that would carry the spent nuclear fuel overland. Today we live in a dangerous world where every negotiation must be carefully evaluated. INVAP and its understandable need to export should have assumed that the sale of nuclear technology is a delicate and even risky subject. We cannot admit that their operations remain practically secret, and that we only know them when a contract is signed or they are disseminated in other countries, as has already happened with Zimbabwe or Australia. The world has changed in recent weeks, and Argentina can no longer play with fire. From now on, all INVAP nuclear projects should be previously evaluated by Parliament and civil society. Our vulnerability advise it. One of those dangers is international terrorism. Whether you use first-, second- or third-generation chemical weapons, small nuclear devices, conventional explosives, biological weapons, or commercial aircraft, the result is very similar. They all cause death, destruction and fear. The military responses in turn generate new reactions, and the spiral of violence grows. We know where it begins but never where it ends. In this context of unpredictable fury, Argentina should not align itself with the warlike madness of the United States, nor with the lethal folly of suicide bombers. However and as part of a prudent international policy we should not embark on nuclear, dangerous and secret deals because they expose us uselessly. The cruel attacks on the Israeli Embassy and AMIA continue to harshly remind us that we are vulnerable. References. (1) Skootsky, M. 1995. US Nuclear Policy towards Iran. Mimeo, 21 p. (2) Gerardi, G.J. and M. Aharinejad. An assessment of Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Non Proliferation Review, vol. 2, n ° 3, pp. 1-9. (3) Uranium Institute Information Service. UI News Briefing 95/32. Uranium Institute Information Service, 3 p. See also Nucleonic Week, August 3, 1995, p. 1. (4) Koch, A. and J. 1997. Iranian nuclear imports. Center for Non Proliferation Studies, 7 p. See publications of the Green Party of Iran. (5) Pike, J. 2000. Weapons Mass Destruction around the World. FAS, 2 p. (6) Koch, A. 1998. Iran’s Nuclear Facilities: a profile. Center for Non Proliferation Studies, 5 p. See publicationsc of the Green Party of Iran. (7) Timmerman, K. 1996. Iran’s Nuclear Program: Myth and Reality.Proceedings, 6th Castiglioncello Conference, USPID, Milan, 9 p. (8) Barletta, M. and C. Ellington. 1999. Foreign Suppliers to Iran’s Nuclear Development. Center for Non Proliferation Studies, Monterey Institute, 6 p. (9) Kessler, R. 1992. General Atomics, INVAP explore research reactor, nuclear ties. Nucleonics Week, April 2, 1 p. (10) The Risk Report. Egypt Nuclear, Chemical and Missile Milestones. The Risk Report, vol. 6, n ° 5, September-October 2000, 3 p. (11) Le Monde. 2001. A plane over the Hague creates a Tchernobyl, they are une etude pour l’Europe. Le Monde, Paris, Samedi 15 September. (12) About.com Guide. Breaking news: terrorism at the 2000 Olympics. Conspiracies and Extremism, About, August 25, 2000, 2 p.
President of FUNAM (Foundation for the defense of the environment). Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the National University of Córdoba. Director of the Master in Environmental Management at the National University of San Luis.
E-mail: [email protected] Web: www.funam.org.ar