Circumstances Surrounding the Government's Approval of Nuclear-Related Exports to Iran

EMD-80-44: Published: Mar 17, 1980. Publicly Released: Mar 20, 1980.

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Certain laser equipment and technology have the potential to enrich uranium. Slightly enriched uranium is used for nuclear reactor fuel; however, when highly enriched, the same uranium takes on qualities that make it suitable for use as a nuclear explosive. Consequently, U.S. laws place strict controls over the export of any equipment or technology useful in either the development of a uranium enrichment capability or the actual enrichment of uranium. In 1978, four lasers and related equipment were exported to Iran from the United States. An evaluation was made of the circumstances and nuclear proliferation implications of that transaction.

The Department of Commerce followed appropriate procedures by referring the application for a license to export the lasers and related equipment to Iran to the Department of Energy (DOE). DOE officials stated that this export received a particularly intensive review which led to the conclusion that the export could not help Iran develop a uranium enrichment capability and that it did not present a nuclear weapons proliferation risk. Because documentation was lacking in some instances, GAO could not determine the depth or thoroughness of the DOE review; however, it was clear that DOE did not use or seek all available information in making its determination. Most of the scientists contacted by GAO agreed that the nuclear proliferation risks associated with the export of the four lasers and related equipment to Iran were small. Although GAO examined only one export of nuclear equipment, it was believed that enough questions were raised about the DOE export approval process to cause concern.

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