John Kerry meets with Iran's Vice President

By Rebecca Emrick
Staff Writer

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the relationship between the United States and Iran has been rocky at best. One aspect of the rocky relationship between the two countries has been Iran’s nuclear program. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which was ratified in 1970 was created in order to outline that “countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament; countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them; and all countries can access peaceful nuclear technology.” According to the NPT, all countries are allowed to use nuclear capabilities, but only for peaceful purposes, such as energy production. However, states are not allowed to acquire nuclear capabilities past the point of peaceful purposes because that would mean that these nations could create nuclear weapons. Iran has not signed onto this treaty, and therefore didn’t formally commit to pursuing purely peaceful nuclear capabilities. Furthermore, in 2003 there was evidence that Iran had pursued and successfully created enriched uranium past what is needed for peaceful applications. However, Iran claimed that their enrichment of uranium was and has stayed at peaceful levels and that the evidence brought before the International Atomic Energy Agency was fabricated because they claimed that “the source of the uranium is imported equipment.”

Despite the circumstantial evidence that Iran was enriching uranium past peaceful uses, the U.S. Department of State has stated that “in response to Iran’s continued illicit nuclear activities, the United States and other countries have imposed unprecedented sanctions” in order to “prevent its further progress in prohibited nuclear activities, as well as to persuade Tehran to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program.” Although these were not the first sanctions ever imposed on Iran by the U.S., the Iranian government and economy has nonetheless felt the economic pressure. According to the World Bank “the business environment [in Iran] remains a challenge with the country ranking 130th out of the 189 countries surveyed in the 2015 Doing Business Report” Iran’s private sector isn’t as successful as it should be for being the second largest economy in the Middle East. Iran is being economically challenged by the sanctions being imposed on them in the private sector because private businesses are extremely limited with regard to whom they can do business with.

On the other hand, Iran has seen economic growth from 1.7 percent in 2013 to 3 percent in 2014 “as a result of the temporary and partial easing of sanctions imposed on Iran’s oil exports.” As a result of some sanctions being lifted from Iran, their overall economic growth has almost doubled in one year. This is no easy feat, and it shows that the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran greatly affect their economy. So if Iran’s economy has nearly doubled in the last year, why would they want to work with the U.S. to lift more sanctions? A big ticket economic problem that Iran faces is unemployment. In Iran “unemployment remains elevated and is expected to be a central challenge for the government”, which gives the Iranian Government motivation to work toward some kind of nuclear agreement with the U.S. in order to lift further sanctions in the hope of creating more jobs for Iranian citizens.

On Jan. 21, 2015 U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed that the U.S. “still [has] a credible chance of reaching a deal that is in the best interest of America’s security, as well as the security of our allies” which was the first time that the U.S. had publicly stated that it was in its own national interest to cooperate and work with Iran on some kind of nuclear arrangement. Since then, the U.S. and Iranian diplomats have come to a preliminary agreement (the deal isn’t sealed until the end of June) which was made available to the Ayatollah Khamenei. Unfortunately the Ayatollah’s reaction to the nuclear deal has been less than satisfactory. For example, in a press conference in Tehran the Ayatollah demanded that economic sanctions be lifted as soon as the negotiations’ final papers were signed and that military sites were completely off limits to foreign inspectors and inquiries. These are two sticking points for the U.S. It is important to both President Obama and John Kerry that the U.S. lifts the economic sanctions on Iran gradually so that they are able to ensure that Iran has been “[complying] with its obligations” to reduce its stockpile of uranium so that they cannot enrich it for nuclear weapons. Additionally, most nuclear sites are also military bases, so if no inspectors were allowed in those facilities than there could be no guarantee that Iran was “following through on their commitment to vastly reduce their uranium stockpile.”

The Obama Administration is also facing criticism from the GOP, and their disbelief that Iran will continue to enrich uranium at levels that are in compliance for peaceful purposes. John Boehner has publicly stated that “it would be naïve to suggest the Iranian regime will not continue to use its nuclear program, and any economic relief, to further destabilize the region.” Members of the GOP are reluctant to allow a deal with Iran to go forward because they are skeptical that Iran will hold up their end of the bargain and enrich uranium at the appropriate levels for peaceful purposes. John Boehner also invited Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, to congress where he expressed concern over the deal with Iran and said in a statement “this is a bad deal — a very bad deal”. John Boehner wanted to invite Netanyahu to Congress to speak in order to show how this nuclear deal would affect Israel, a long standing ally of the U.S. Were Iran to go back on their agreement with the U.S., a nuclear armed Iran would be a large threat in the Middle East weapons and would most likely trigger an arms race in the Middle East. Iran and Israel are known for having an extremely tense relationship, so if Iran were to have nuclear weapons, one can assume that it would push their relationship over the edge. Boehner and the GOP wanted to use Netanyahu’s speech in order to show Obama what could go wrong if the U.S. decided to go through with a nuclear deal with Iran.

In Iran, the Ayatollah claims that he neither supports nor opposes the nuclear negotiations, he did end his speech saying that he “has never been optimistic about negotiations with America” which implies that he may be leaning away from supporting any kind of nuclear deal with the U.S. Although the President of Iran is directly elected by the people of Iran, it is the Ayatollah that has the final say in political matters. If the Ayatollah doesn’t agree with or support a bill, then the bill won’t pass. It will be important to take into consideration what the Ayatollah wants from these nuclear talks in order for the talks to be ultimately successful.

Image by the U.S. Department of State


By Melanie Emr
Staff Writer

On April 7, 2014, Professor Emeritus Mehdi Sarram gave a lecture at UCSD that addressed how increasing pressure to meet global energy needs must be met by both nuclear energy plants and renewable energy. [1] Professor Sarram is the president of Energy Security Consulting group, LLC, and has worked with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) since its establishment in 1975, as well as with the Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear facilities. Along with his impressive achievements in the realm of nuclear energy regulation and management, he was also one of the founders of Iran’s nuclear energy program and served as the Director of Nuclear Safeguards, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran from 1973 to 1979. Despite the shutdown of a few nuclear plants across the United States and Germany’s recent divestment from nuclear energy, Professor Sarram argues that the world must not abandon nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is a significantly cost-efficient resource and provides an effective means of reducing global carbon emissions. [1]

According to Professor Sarram, a potential agenda for solving future energy needs in a more sustainable way is an expanded role for nuclear energy in conjunction with renewables and a global eradication of energy dependence on fossil fuels. Climate change scientists paint a dim portrait for our warming planet in the years to come. CO2 concentrations have increased by about 40 percent since the industrial era due primarily to anthropogenic fossil fuel emissions such as oil, gas and coal. The evils of fossil fuels cannot be denied. Coal produces about 100-200 times more of a carbon footprint than nuclear or wind power. [1] The Pacific Ocean is warming at a faster rate than has been observed overthe past 10,000 years, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying — the list is exhaustive. Whether or not you are an advocate for nuclear energy, all climate change scientists agree that the key to reducing the anthropogenic carbon footprint and mitigating the impending effects of climate change is the need for a complete global divestment from fossil fuels.

Moreover, Professor Sarram addresses how the world’s pressing energy needs are increasing due to the soaring global population growth. Developed, industrialized nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have a lower population growth rate than those in developing nations not affiliated with the OECD. Non-OECD nations thus consume more energy that inevitably places high demand on the environment and natural resources. To illustrate, non-OECD annual electricity demand growth is at 3.3 percent per year compared to only 1.2 percent of electricity demand increases per year in OECD nations. Since non-OECD nations are impoverished, the methods of energy extraction are often “dirty,” as people rely on cheap energy extraction methods such as burning coal and wood. Since forests naturally capture and store CO2, nations like China (which is the biggest polluter in the world) are eliminating natural sources of carbon storage through deforestation and enabling carbon to be stored in the atmosphere as a “sink.” OECD nations tend to be more environmentally conscientious. For example, OECD countries produce roughly half of the hydroelectricity produced worldwide. A highly important factor for future climate policy to address is how to get OECD countries to divest from fossil fuels, making renewables and nuclear power more economically appealing options for energy extraction. [1]

Professor Sarram’s argument for a global strengthening of the nuclear power industry is put into perspective with the recent shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear station, which has negatively impacted the surrounding environment. The San Onofre Nuclear power plant was shut down in 2012 due to safety, equipment and political issues. What the public does not realize, however, is that the utility has increased its use of natural gas and other fossil fuels to replace the plant’s power generation, which provided up to 2000 MW of electricity for the San Diego county grid. In 2011, when San Onofre was still running, 50 percent of the utility’s energy sources came from carbon-free nuclear, hydroelectric and renewable sources. In 2012, only 30 percent of the utility’s electricity came from carbon-free resources. Professor Sarram insightfully identifies that the use of natural gas to replace the use of nuclear energy will create a significantly higher amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. With the shutdown of the nuclear plant, we need 2 million KWh of electric power. If we measure the carbon footprint of nuclear energy versus that of natural gas, we will see that natural gas produces 500 grams of CO2 per KWh more than nuclear energy. This increase in CO2 emissions per KWh amounts to a frightening 8.7 million tons of CO2 released per year into the atmosphere. [1] Despite the risks of nuclear energy, the loss of the environmental benefits from nuclear power plants is apparent with the end of the San Onofre nuclear power plant.

Professor Sarram continues to argue that nuclear energy is, in fact, a “safe and reliable” electricity source. He makes an interesting observation that people continue to drive their cars, even with so many deaths related to car crashes. The probability of a core melt is less than one in a million for new designs, lower than the probability of death from a car accident which is already extremely low. While another nuclear accident may happen, civil management engineers have learned from previous human errors and poor design factors and have increased safety measures to avoid another accident. For the future, safety measures are also being established to mitigate the aftereffects of nuclear plant malfunctions so there is a fast “recovery” of the surroundings. Professor Sarram believes that society’s fear of nuclear energy is a fear based on misinformation, which is causing a divestment from nuclear energy and leading to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.[1] The public and government officials worldwide must be made aware of the immediate environmental benefits that nuclear energy provides rather than fear the possibilities of an accident.

Although Professor Sarram refers to nuclear energy as a “safe and reliable” source of electricity, this poses controversial insight amidst the recent disaster of Fukushima and the lingering aftereffects of Chernobyl. With all the concerns raised about nuclear disasters, why not just expand renewables like wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, tidal waves and biomass? Is it possible to rely solely on renewables and avoid nuclear energy altogether? Professor Sarram identifies a key limitation to renewables — a geographical barrier in terms of location. Wind or sun cannot be produced just anywhere, and the locations where wind and sun are produced may be the areas that need them the least. This poses a good argument in favor of nuclear power plant installations because, unlike a wind turbine or a solar panel, a nuclear power plant can be built anywhere on the planet and produce energy for the surrounding population. In fact, in 2006, 16 percent of the world population’s energy was nuclear and 25 of the OECD countries derived their energy from nuclear power. In the United States in the same year, about 20 percent of electricity was produced by 105 nuclear plants. [1]

In opposition, Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, intends to make a world largely based on renewables where fossil fuels and nukes are a thing of the past. Jacobsen’s plan calls for the massive installation of millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar panels both on and offshore around the globe. Looking at the state level, in California, the potential benefits of such installations would create a net 137,000 permanent jobs. If the entire globe were powered by renewable energy, according to Jacobsen, this would prevent hazardous oil spills polluting water supplies, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and clean up air pollution. Professor Sarram, however, disagrees with this proposal, as he reveals how Spain and the United Kingdom ran into deep trouble trying to produce more electricity from wind and solar. Spain has accumulated a debt of 26 billion euro for subsidies to wind and solar. [1]

Jacobsen claims that while renewable installations appear costly and inaccessible to non-OECD countries, the renewable infrastructure is long-lasting, furthering his ideal notions of dependency on renewables. We “do not need to keep feeding steel into a wind turbine that’s already up and running unlike the hungry beasts of fossil fuels, which endlessly devour coal, oil and gas” says Jacobsen. Professor Sarram, however, argues that the life of a wind tower is in reality only 15-20 years. Also, renewables have low capacity factors, unlike nuclear energy that has a capacity factor of 92 percent as compared to wind that has a capacity factor of 27 percent. In general, the costs of renewables have a decreasing trend in cost, while conversely the cost for fossil fuels is steadily rising. To put things into perspective, in the past four years costs for installing wind turbines have decreased by 50 percent. In the past year solar has declined in cost from between six percent and 14 percent. However, Professor Sarram reveals that currently the actual cost in cents per Kwhr is higher than both coal and nuclear, which remains the cheapest energy source along with hydropower. Again, this reveals that nuclear is presently a cost-effective source to replace the use of “dirty” energy sources in global marketplaces. Professor Sarram also poses another problem to renewables regarding intermittency. If the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing when the energy is most needed, then what? Jacobsen proposes combining wind and solar and using hydroelectric to fill in the gaps. While Professor Sarram agrees with this part of Jacobsen’s proposal, yet again, renewables alone are not enough — there is still a need for nuclear energy. [1] Renewables are part of the ideal energy portfolio for the future, but alone they cannot produce enough electricity for the world. We simply cannot meet all our energy needs by these three sources alone; we need nuclear energy as a base load.

Nevertheless, while we have the renewable energy we need to power the world, numerous obstacles come in our path that force us to stay dependent on fossil fuels. “Humankind faces a vicious circle: a shift to renewable energy will replace one non-renewable resource (fossil fuel) with another (metals and minerals),” wrote researchers Olivier Vida, Bruno Goffe, and Nicholas Arndt. The demand for base metals like iron, copper and aluminum is predicted to rise drastically. Therefore, it cannot be expected that fossil-fuel dependent nations will be eager to adopt renewables when facing such a prospective trade off.

Yet what fossil-fuel dependent nations are not acknowledging is how their present activities will affect future generations. Oil, gas and coal will not last forever. As they become scarcer in the future, their prices will rise dramatically. While renewable energy continues to be seemingly inaccessible and its potential benefits misunderstood (primarily by non-OECD nations), global dependence on nuclear energy must be the alternate solution to avoid the continued application of fossil fuels. While many want to forgo nuclear energy in light of the potential disasters, our thirst for energy is making nuclear energy a necessity if our goal is to create a more sustainable world for future generations.

Image by exquisitur


[1] Sarram, Mehdi. University of California, San Diego. La Jolla, Ca. 7 April 2014. Lecture.