David Ignatius has finally gotten around to reading the Mark Hibbs article on a problem that some of us have been thinking about for some time. Joshua Pollack at Arms Control Wonk supplies some of the links so that I don't have to search for them.
The news strikes Ignatius "as a bombshell," partly because he doesn't know what he's talking about, neither on the technical side nor the diplomatic. Diplomatic solutions are about finding solutions that benefit both sides. So if Iran can get the molybdenum hexafluoride removed from the uranium hexafluoride feed material and get the uranium enriched for the Tehran Research Reactor in exchange for appropriate safeguards and an implicit discouragement of further development of its enrichment capabilities, that's really okay. "Especially cheeky," perhaps. But so what?
Yes, it's entirely possible that Iran is looking at this as a springboard to bigger and better things. But if they don't solve their technical problems, they won't learn those parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. And (here Ignatius gets it right) that will mean that it will take them longer to get a bomb, if indeed that's what they want. More time for negotiations, more time to find solutions that benefit all sides.
I'm not all that subtle and was confused by Ignatius's confusion, so I am indebted to Pollack for pointing out that the mumbling toward the end of Ignatius's op-ed is an attempt at implying sabotage in the feed preparation plant. But Pollock sets him straight on that. And let me supply just a bit more.
The molybdenum is in the uranium ore. The mixer-settlers that Pollock mentions are the means for purifying the uranium from a number of metals, like molybdenum, that are in the uranium ore and have very similar chemistry. I'd post one of my photos from the Sillamäe plant of the line of mixer-settlers once used by the Soviets in an early stage of uranium purification, but it's a film photo and I'd have to go to my files and then scan it...
That purification is not, er, rocket science, so I'm a bit baffled as to why this has been such a difficulty for the Iranians. If they can't entirely do it in the mixer-settler line, they should be able to distill the hexafluorides; the boiling point for moly hexafluoride is 35 C and for uranium hexafluoride is about 65 C. In fact, a couple of years back, the report was that they had solved the problem and I found that entirely believable.
And if there's a secret stash contaminated with moly hexafluoride, they'll have the same problems with that.