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Iran to Boost 20%-Enriched Uranium Output

Peter Crail

Iran will triple its production of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a senior Iranian official announced June 8, a move Western countries called a provocation.

Tehran also said that it would move the production from an above-ground pilot plant at its Natanz complex to an underground facility that was first publicly disclosed by Western leaders in 2009. (See ACT, October 2009.)

Announcing the enrichment plans during a press briefing in Tehran, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) head Fereydoun Abbasi, said “This year, we will transfer 20 percent enrichment from Natanz to the Fordow plant under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and will triple its (production) capacity,” Iran’s official Fars news agency reported the following day. The leaders of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States publicly revealed the existence of the Fordow plant in September 2009, accusing Iran of keeping it hidden from the IAEA.

The United States and other Western countries questioned the motivations behind Iran’s recent announcement. “Apart from what appears now to be a clear intent to produce more 20 percent-enriched uranium than Iran needs to make fuel for its one and only research reactor, it also represents another chapter in the changing Iranian narrative regarding why this underground facility [Fordow] was built,” U.S. Permanent Representative to the IAEA Glyn Davies told the agency’s governing board June 9.

Uranium can be enriched to low levels of the isotope uranium-235 as fuel for nuclear reactors or to weapons-grade levels, generally 90 percent and higher, for nuclear weapons. Although 20 percent-enriched uranium is not weapons grade, such material can be further enriched to weapons-grade levels relatively quickly.

Former IAEA Deputy Director-General for Safeguards Olli Heinonen told the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee June 23 that 20 percent enrichment places Iran closer to producing material for weapons “in terms of the necessary technology mastered as well as the time needed to convert the [uranium] to bomb-grade material.”

Iranian officials said the planned threefold increase in production will be accomplished by using a new generation of gas centrifuges that it has been developing for several years. Abbasi said that the new centrifuges, which enrich uranium about three times faster than the machines Iran currently uses, will be installed at the Fordow plant “soon.”

Iran has yet to begin testing its “second generation” centrifuges in full-scale cascades, linking 164 machines together to enrich uranium. Iran initially informed the IAEA in January that it intended to begin such testing, and a diplomatic source said that, according to a June 2 IAEA technical briefing, Iran had begun installing the advanced centrifuges for testing at Natanz.

Mark Fitzpatrick, former deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, said in a June 24 e-mail that because Iran has been testing smaller batches of advanced centrifuges, “it would not be surprising” if Iran installed full cascades for enrichment to 20 percent. “But Iran probably still lacks a self-sufficiency in all the parts that would enable it to install advanced centrifuges in large numbers,” he said.

Iran began producing 20 percent-enriched uranium at the Natanz pilot plant in February 2010, saying that it needed to do so to make fuel for a research reactor in Tehran that runs on uranium enriched to that level. (See ACT, March 2010.) The move followed a breakdown in talks among Iran, France, Russia, the United States, and the IAEA on a tentative agreement to ship out the majority of Iran’s low-enriched uranium (LEU) in return for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. That reactor, supplied by the United States in the 1950s, produces medical isotopes for hospitals.

A commercial-scale plant at Natanz produces LEU enriched to about 4 percent, the level generally used in nuclear power reactors.

The May IAEA report said that, as of that month, Iran produced a total of about 57 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium. Iran says it wants to produce 120 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium for the Tehran reactor, which is believed to have almost exhausted its supply of fuel.

Iranian Permanent Representative to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh told China’s official Xinhua news agency June 13 that “we have to speed up” the production of 20 percent-enriched uranium “because [the] Tehran research reactor is in desperate need [of] fuel.”

The rate at which Iran produces 20 percent-enriched uranium, however, does not appear to be the main time constraint for refueling the reactor. Iran is not believed to be able to manufacture fuel plates for the reactor safely. Heinonen said last November that it would likely take Iran one to two years to do so. (See ACT, March 2011.)

Abbasi said in April, however, that Iran would build an additional four or five research reactors similar to the one in Tehran to increase its production of medical isotopes, requiring more 20 percent-enriched uranium than the 120 kilograms intended for the existing reactor. Iran has so far rebuffed IAEA requests for additional information on such plans, telling the agency in a May 3 letter that it would do so “in due time,” the May IAEA report said.

In his e-mail, Fitzpatrick dismissed Iran’s rationale for increasing its producing of 20 percent material. “The flimsy excuse that more 20 percent enriched uranium is needed for additional research reactors, to be built some time in the future, does not pass the laugh test,” he said. Instead, he suggested, Iran’s goal is to get closer to a capability to make material for weapons.

 

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