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IAEA Cites Iran Progress, Raises Questions
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Paul Kerr

In a Nov.15 report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors, Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei concluded that all of Iran’s known nuclear material “has been accounted for, and…is not diverted to prohibited activities,” but added that the IAEA is “not yet in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran.”

A September IAEA resolution called for ElBaradei to report on the investigation’s status, as well as Iran’s implementation of IAEA board requests expressed in several past resolutions. (See ACT, October 2004.) The board had requested Iran to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation, fully account for previously undisclosed nuclear activities, and suspend its uranium-enrichment activities.

The Investigation

The report reiterates that Tehran had conducted a variety of clandestine nuclear activities that “resulted in many breaches of its obligation to comply” with its IAEA safeguards agreement. Such agreements require states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to allow the IAEA to monitor their declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military use. (See ACT, October 2004.)

Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA investigation has been uneven, particularly before Iran agreed to disclose all of its nuclear activities to the agency as part of an October 2003 agreement with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Iran had previously provided incomplete and misleading information to the agency, delayed inspectors’ access to certain facilities, and altered the interiors of some buildings to thwart IAEA detection methods.

In an effort to improve the investigation, the IAEA Board of Governors called on Iran to sign and ratify an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. The protocol, which augments the agency’s authority to detect clandestine nuclear activities, requires Iran to declare a significantly greater number of nuclear-related activities than required by its original safeguards agreement. Iran signed the protocol as part of the October 2003 agreement. Although Iran’s parliament has not yet ratified the agreement, Tehran has agreed to abide by the protocol’s provisions in the meantime.

According to the report, Iran has increased its cooperation with the agency since October 2003, producing “good progress.” Iran has corrected several of its safeguards violations, and the IAEA has been able to “confirm certain aspects of Iran’s current declarations.” ElBaradei told the board in his September report that the agency had been able to conclude special investigations into Iran’s uranium-conversion and laser-based uranium-enrichment programs.

The report states, however, that Iran has restricted IAEA inspectors’ ability to photograph Iranian facilities. The IAEA also says that Tehran is not allowing agency officials to independently record meetings with Iranian officials and still has not provided the IAEA with some requested procurement information.

Uranium Enrichment

The IAEA has not yet resolved two major outstanding issues concerning Iran’s gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program: the source of enriched uranium particles found at several Iranian facilities and the scope of Iran’s advanced “P-2” centrifuge program. Uranium enrichment increases the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope to produce either low-enriched uranium (LEU) for civilian nuclear reactor fuel or highly enriched uranium, which, if enriched to high enough levels, can be used in nuclear weapons. Gas centrifuges enrich uranium hexafluoride gas by spinning it at very high speeds.

Iran has acknowledged enriching uranium without notifying the IAEA—a violation of its safeguards agreement.

Iran says it has only enriched uranium to a level slightly higher than the less than 1 percent uranium-235 typically found in natural uranium, asserting that other particles, some of which contained as much as 70 percent uranium-235, came from imported centrifuge components. According to the report, “the environmental sampling data available to date tends, on balance, to support” Iran’s claims. The IAEA will continue to investigate “other possible explanations,” which include other undisclosed Iranian nuclear experiments or concealment of imported or domestically produced nuclear material.

Arms Control Today previously reported that particles enriched to 54 percent uranium-235 came from centrifuges imported from Pakistan and that particles enriched to 36 percent apparently came from equipment that originated in the former Soviet Union. The latter reached Iran via China and Pakistan. (See ACT, September 2004.) As part of this investigation, IAEA officials have taken environmental samples at several locations in Pakistan and have reached an agreement with the government “on the basic modalities” for taking additional samples, ElBaradei told the board Nov. 25.

In addition, the report introduced a new theory to explain the presence of some LEU particles with greater concentrations of uranium-235 than Iran has acknowledged producing. The report says that it is possible that the particles, found on domestically produced centrifuge components, came from “quality control equipment used on both imported and domestic components.”

Additionally, the IAEA has been unable to determine the source of uranium hexafluoride found in a Tehran storage facility. Although agency experts continue to regard “as not technically plausible” Iran’s claim that the material leaked from containers stored at the site, the IAEA will not be able to pursue this matter further unless “new information becomes available.”

As for the P-2 centrifuge project, the agency continues to investigate the scope of Iran’s research and development efforts. According to the report, the IAEA still does not have “sufficient assurance” that Iran did not begin work on the project before 2002, even though Tehran received the designs in 1995. Because of the project’s advanced state, IAEA experts believe that Iran started the program earlier than it has claimed.

Other Issues

The report discusses the results of environmental samples that IAEA inspectors took at the Lavizan-Shian site in June. The site had attracted suspicion because of reports that Iran had razed buildings there in what may have been an attempt to conceal evidence of nuclear activities. The report says the sample results “reveal no evidence of nuclear material” but adds that detecting nuclear material would be “very difficult” because the buildings were demolished.

Tehran allowed the agency to take environmental samples from two whole-body counters found at the site, as well as a trailer that Iranian officials said contained one of the counters. Such counters are used to measure radioactive material in humans. The report says Iran’s account of why the counters were at the site is “plausible.” Iran had told the IAEA that it had established a physics research center at the site in 1989, but the report notes that IAEA inspectors have not yet been able to take samples from the trailer that housed the other counter.

In October, agency officials reiterated their request for permission to visit the Parchin military complex. Iranian officials have said publicly that IAEA inspectors would be allowed to visit the site, which U.S. officials believe may have facilities that could be used to test conventional high explosives for use in an implosion-type nuclear weapon. (See ACT, October 2004.)

In addition to these issues, the IAEA is continuing its efforts to determine the dates of Iran’s plutonium-separation experiments, which may have been conducted more recently than Tehran has claimed. Separating plutonium from irradiated reactor fuel is another method for obtaining explosive material for nuclear weapons.

There are also unresolved questions about Iran’s attempts to obtain parts for hot cells, which are shielded rooms useful for separating plutonium. Iran no longer plans to construct these cells, the report says, but Tehran’s procurement attempts have caused concern because of Iran’s plans to construct a heavy-water nuclear research reactor, which will produce plutonium when complete. The IAEA board has asked Iran to “reconsider” constructing such a reactor, but Iran has yet to respond.

Suspension

As part of its October 2003 agreement, Iran also agreed to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities. Although Tehran has maintained a freeze on its gas centrifuge facilities and refrained from introducing uranium hexafluoride into any of its centrifuges, implementation of the agreement has largely been characterized by disputes over the suspension’s scope and Iran’s reluctance to halt portions of its enrichment program.

For example, Iran resumed manufacturing centrifuge components and assembling entire centrifuges in June after promising to end these activities months earlier. Iran has produced more than 1,200 centrifuge rotors, the report states. ElBaradei told the board that all of Iran’s “essential” centrifuge components have been placed under IAEA seal, except for 20 sets of components, which will be monitored by agency surveillance cameras.

Iran’s uranium-conversion activities also have been controversial. Tehran sent the IAEA a letter in May stating that the suspension did not include the production of uranium hexafluoride, a characterization which, at the time, was inconsistent with the agency’s interpretation of Iran’s original pledge.

Iran has a uranium-conversion facility that can convert uranium oxide—lightly processed uranium ore—into several different uranium compounds, including uranium hexafluoride. After producing 40-45 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride last spring as part of a “test,” Tehran announced in September that it had begun to convert a quantity of uranium oxide sufficient eventually to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for several crude nuclear weapons.

The November IAEA report says that Iran had not produced any additional uranium hexafluoride as of Oct. 14. However, ElBaradei told the board Nov. 25 that Iran has since produced 3.5 tons of uranium hexafluoride.

The IAEA’s more recent suspension requests have been more specific. The September resolution said that suspending “all enrichment-related activities” included the “manufacture or import of centrifuge components, the assembly and testing of centrifuges,” and the production of uranium hexafluoride.

Iran finally notified ElBaradei Nov. 14 that it would extend its original suspension as part of a new agreement with the Europeans. The suspension now includes the above provisions, as well as a requirement that Iran refrain from testing or producing any nuclear materials “at any uranium conversion installation.”

 

Posted: December 1, 2004