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Iran Mining Uranium, Greatly Expanding Nuclear Facilities
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Paul Kerr

In a televised speech, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced February 9 that Iran has started mining uranium near the city of Yazd and is developing the facilities necessary for a complete nuclear fuel cycle. Khatami’s speech, in which he argued that Iran needs to be able to control the entire nuclear fuel cycle in order to generate electricity, rekindled fears that Iran may be trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Khatami enumerated the steps Iran is taking to develop a complete fuel cycle. He stated that a facility to produce uranium oxide—or “yellow cake”—is under construction in the same province as the uranium reserves. He added that a uranium conversion facility, which converts uranium oxide to uranium hexafluoride, is near completion and located close to Isfahan. He also said that a uranium-enrichment facility, used to turn uranium hexafluouride into reactor-grade fuel, is under construction near Kashan and that a fuel fabrication plant is being built.

Iran’s intention to control the nuclear fuel cycle added to the United States’ long-standing concern that Iran might reprocess spent fuel it obtains from a nuclear reactor—a step that could give it access to weapons-grade fissile material. Although Khatami’s speech does not explicitly mention reprocessing, U.S. officials interpret Khatami’s discussion of the complete fuel cycle and the need to “manage the nuclear fuel by-products” as evidence that Iran is planning to engage in reprocessing, a State Department official said in a February 21 interview.

Not surprisingly, the United States reacted negatively to Khatami’s announcement. The “plans for a complete fuel cycle clearly indicate Iran’s intention to build the infrastructure for a nuclear weapons capability,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said February 10.

Boucher added that any decision by Iran to reprocess spent fuel would “directly contradict” an agreement between Iran and Russia, which is building a nuclear reactor for Iran near the city of Bushehr. Under that agreement, Moscow will supply the fuel for the reactor, but Iran must return the spent fuel to Russia. Iran and Russia have agreed to the terms of the deal, but the agreement has not yet been signed, the State Department official said February 21.

Washington has long opposed the Bushehr project, because it believes Iran will gain access to dual-use technology that can aid it in developing a nuclear weapons program, although the unfinished reactor is to operate under international safeguards. Boucher said January 31 that Washington is “engaged intensively with Russia…to cease all such cooperation with Iran.” Boucher also noted, as incentive, a standing U.S. offer to arrange for states to transfer their spent nuclear fuel to Russia for storage or reprocessing—a deal that could be worth more than $10 billion to Russia, according to the State Department. (See ACT, November 2002.)

The Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that Iran “will have a nuclear weapon within the decade” if it acquires the necessary technology and fissile material, the agency’s director, Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 11.

Iran continues to assert that it does not seek nuclear weapons and that its nuclear program is for the production of electricity. Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh said that Iran wants “nuclear know-how” but is “not interested in the proliferation of arms,” according to a February 10 report from the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

An official from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) interviewed February 20 said that the “IAEA has been aware for several years of uranium exploration projects in Iran,” adding that in 1992 an IAEA official visited the mine Khatami discussed and that “the Iranian government has been informing [the agency] of some of its work there.” IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming stated that Iran informed the agency in September 2002 that it had “plans to develop an ambitious nuclear power program that would include the entire fuel cycle,” according to a February 10 Associated Press article.

On February 21-22, in a previously scheduled visit, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei toured several Iranian nuclear facilities whose existence had only recently been made public. ElBaradei was originally scheduled to visit Iran in December, but the visit was rescheduled at Iran’s request just before the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a nongovernmental organization in Washington, D.C., issued a report December 12 stating that Iran is building “secret nuclear fuel cycle facilities.” The United States said such facilities could be used to support a nuclear weapons program. (See ACT, January/February 2003.)

During his visit, ElBaradei went to one of the sites named in the ISIS report—a uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. The facility includes a “gas centrifuge pilot plant,” according to a February 25 IAEA press release. Two other IAEA employees remained in Iran to conduct additional inspections, but the agency did not say where.

ElBaradei said February 25 that he had also met with members of the Iranian government, including Khatami, and that Iran provided the agency with “information on its plans for a nuclear fuel cycle.” ElBaradei indicated that Iran agreed to provide the agency with “early design information on any of its new nuclear facilities”—an obligation to which it had not previously agreed, according to the IAEA press release.

ElBaradei called on Iran to conclude an Additional Protocol to its existing Safeguards Agreement, which Tehran had to sign as a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The protocol would likely provide for more rigorous inspections, including inspections of undeclared nuclear facilities. A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry stated that the Additional Protocol would be “discussed and signed in the course of future negotiations,” according to a February 23 IRNA report.