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Iran’s Enrichment Efforts Advance
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Paul Kerr

Iran continues to advance its nuclear programs even as diplomatic efforts to contain it continue, according to a Nov. 14 report from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei to the agency’s Board of Governors. ElBaradei also reported that investigators have not been able to make progress in their investigation of Tehran’s nuclear activities for months, although Iran promised some renewed cooperation with the agency in late November.

Uranium Enrichment Continues

The report indicates that Iran is moving forward with its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. Gas centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds in order to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope. They can produce low-enriched uranium (LEU), which can be used in nuclear reactors, and highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be used in certain types of nuclear reactors and as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

ElBaradei confirmed that Iran has been testing centrifuges in its pilot uranium-enrichment facility with uranium hexafluoride “during intermittent periods,” although they have mostly been operated without nuclear material.

The director-general’s report confirms that Iran has completed installing a second 164-centrifuge cascade. Iran has for months been operating cascades made up of 10 and 20 centrifuges, as well as an initial 164-centrifuge cascade. ElBaradei said that Tehran began to test the new 164-centrifuge cascade with uranium hexafluoride Oct. 13. (See ACT, November 2006.) According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, it would take more than a dozen years of operating a 164-centrifuge cascade to generate enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.

All of these cascades are in a pilot centrifuge facility located at Natanz, but Iran is also constructing a larger commercial facility at the same site.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ali Hoesyni reiterated Nov. 12 that Iran plans to install 3,000 centrifuges in the larger facility by March 2007. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a Nov. 21 television interview that Iran ultimately intends to install 60,000 centrifuges, a number slightly higher than past figures given to the IAEA. Last April, Stephen Rademaker, then-acting assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation issues, claimed that it would take less than a year for Iran to enrich sufficient material for a nuclear weapon if Tehran had 3,000 installed centrifuges and less than a month if Tehran had 50,000. (See ACT, April 2006.)

Another measure also indicates that Iran has been accelerating its enrichment efforts. Between Aug. 13 and Nov. 2, Iran fed about 34 kilograms of feedstock into its centrifuges. By contrast, Iran fed a total of about six kilograms of the material into the centrifuge during June and July, according to a report from ElBaradei to the IAEA board in August.

The IAEA is still verifying Iran’s claim that the more-recent campaign enriched uranium to less than 5 percent uranium-235, a level typical for LEU used in nuclear reactors.

Tehran also began a new “campaign” in June to produce uranium hexafluoride from lightly processed uranium ore. According to the report, Iran converted a portion of 160 metric tons of lightly processed uranium ore to uranium hexafluoride, yielding 55 metric tons as of Nov. 7. According to the report, Iran told the agency that it anticipates converting all of the ore by January 2007.

Investigation Stalled

Meanwhile, ElBaradei told reporters Nov. 23 that the agency is “going through a period of standstill” in its investigation of a number of issues related to Iran’s past undeclared enrichment-related activities.

His report says that the IAEA has found no evidence that Iran has diverted any of its declared nuclear facilities or materials. However, it also says that the agency will “remain unable to make further progress in its efforts to verify” that Tehran has not engaged in clandestine nuclear activities “unless Iran addresses…long outstanding verification issues.”

Since its investigation began in 2002, the IAEA has discovered that Iran engaged in secret nuclear activities, some of which violated its safeguards agreement. Iran has provided explanations for some of these issues, but the agency says that several others remain unresolved. (See ACT, March 2006.)

IAEA safeguards agreements, which are required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), allow the agency to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure they are not diverted to military purposes.

ElBaradei attributed the IAEA’s lack of progress to Iran’s limited cooperation with the agency. As one obstacle, he cited Tehran’s continued refusal to implement its additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement. Tehran has signed the protocol, which augments the IAEA’s authority to investigate possible undeclared nuclear activities, but has not ratified it. For several years, however, Tehran had been behaving as if the protocol were in force but stopped doing so in February. (See ACT, March 2006.)

ElBaradei also noted Tehran’s decision to link its cooperation with the investigation to the UN Security Council’s deliberations concerning Iran’s nuclear program (see page 31).

Iran indicated in a Nov. 1 letter to the IAEA that it is willing to address the agency’s outstanding questions regarding its nuclear program, according to ElBaradei’s report. However, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki indicated in a Nov. 23 television interview that this cooperation is “conditional” on the Security Council stopping its deliberations.

ElBaradei reported that the agency has been unable to resolve a number of outstanding issues related to Iran’s centrifuge program, such as procurement efforts and research on advanced centrifuges.

Additionally, the IAEA has still not made progress in determining the origin of some LEU and HEU particles found at several locations in Iran. The particles raise the possibility that Tehran may have either imported or produced additional undeclared enriched uranium in violation of its safeguards agreement. Iran has previously admitted that it enriched uranium secretly but only to very low levels.

Most recently, the agency has asked Iran for information regarding HEU particles discovered when inspectors took environmental samples from a container located at the Karaj Waste Storage Facility. The facility had not been declared to the agency, an IAEA official told Arms Control Today in late October. ElBaradei reported that the agency had asked Iran to provide information about the source of the particles and the past use of the containers.

Iran replied in a Sept. 6 letter that the containers “had been used for the temporary storage of spent fuel” from a research reactor located in Tehran, which “could explain the presence of the HEU particles.” The IAEA is currently analyzing samples taken from other containers, which had been used to store spent fuel from the reactor.

The reactor had used HEU fuel but has used LEU since the early 1990s. Iran has recently provided additional cooperation relevant to this issue, ElBaradei informed the IAEA board Nov. 23. Tehran told the agency that it will allow agency inspectors to take additional environmental samples from equipment located at a “technical university.” The IAEA last collected such samples in January and subsequently discovered that they contained HEU particles. (See ACT, July/August 2006.)

Iran has also “agreed to provide” the IAEA with access to the “operating records” of its pilot enrichment facility, ElBaradei said. Tehran has dragged its feet on supplying this information for several months, according to his report.

According to ElBaradei, the agency also is continuing its investigation of Iran’s past undeclared plutonium-separation experiments. Iran, however, has not “provided sufficient clarification” of these issues and has told the agency that “no other relevant information is available,” he reported.

Most recently, the IAEA detected plutonium in the environmental samples taken from the containers found at the Karaj facility, according to ElBaradei’s report. The agency is assessing a Nov. 13 response from Iran.

The Iranian Atomic Energy Organization issued a statement two days later indicating that the plutonium particles originated from spent fuel from the research reactor.

The plutonium experiments have caused concern because Iran is building a nuclear reactor moderated by heavy water. Such reactors can produce weapons-grade plutonium, which is also used as fissile material in nuclear weapons. Although the IAEA has found evidence that Tehran was interested in reprocessing spent reactor fuel, Iran has said that it will not do so.

Posted: December 1, 2006