Iran Nuclear Efforts Face Critical Limits

Peter Crail

Iran continues to face considerable technical difficulties with key aspects of its nuclear program, the former head of safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in October.

Olli Heinonen, who was the deputy director-general for safeguards at the IAEA until August, said in an Oct. 22 interview with Haaretz that because of problems Iran is facing with its gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment plant, “they are losing materials…and so, with this defective equipment, they will have a hard time enriching the material to a level high enough to enable the production of nuclear weapons.”

Deficiencies in the centrifuge operations have led to substantial amounts of wasted uranium hexafluoride gas, the feedstock for enrichment. At higher enrichment levels, these deficiencies become more severe, wasting larger mounts of material.

Iran’s uranium-enrichment program lies at the center of concerns surrounding its nuclear ambitions. Gas centrifuges are used to enrich uranium to low concentrations of the fissile isotope uranium-235 for use in power reactors or to higher concentrations, which can be used in nuclear weapons. Tehran claims that its enrichment program is intended only to produce fuel for nuclear power reactors. Many countries, however, have charged that the real purpose is to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for weapons.

Heinonen’s assessment echoes that of U.S. administration officials who have asserted that Iran’s technical difficulties provide time to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. Gary Samore, the White House arms control coordinator, said during a May 11 press briefing that because of technical hurdles with Iran’s enrichment program, “the nuclear clock is not ticking as quickly as some had feared.”

These technical challenges also appear to be borne out in IAEA reports on Iran’s program. The latest such report, in September, indicates that Iran’s commercial-scale enrichment facility at Natanz currently houses about 8,800 centrifuges, but only about 3,700 are operating. (See ACT, October 2010.)

In addition to Iran’s difficulty operating the centrifuges it has built, due to a lack of critical materials such as maraging steel, it likely faces an upper limit on the number of machines it can produce.

Knowledgeable sources said in October that Iran likely only has enough materials for about 12,000 machines. The IAEA has previously estimated that Iran had enough components to manufacture about 10,000 machines. (See ACT, December 2008.)

Iranian officials have said that the Natanz plant is intended ultimately to run about 50,000 centrifuges.

The centrifuges Iran is currently operating are based on a 1970s-vintage Dutch design acquired through the nuclear smuggling network led by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. Called the P-1, the centrifuge design is known to be problematic.

Iran has been developing more-advanced centrifuge designs based on the so-called P-2 machine, but to date has tested only small numbers of those centrifuges. Iran is also believed to be dependent on outside sources of critical materials, such as carbon fiber, for its advanced centrifuges.

International sanctions prohibit the export to Iran of materials and technology that could be used in a gas centrifuge program.

Heinonen told Haaretz that due to the technical challenges Iran is facing, it is not likely to have the capacity to produce HEU for weapons for another one to two years.

Such hurdles do not pertain only to Iran’s enrichment program. Over the past several years, Iranian officials have justified their controversial enrichment program by describing an ambitious plan to build nuclear power reactors. However, Tehran does not appear capable of fulfilling such aims, particularly under international sanctions.

In the latest iteration of Tehran’s nuclear power plans, parliamentary spokesman Kazem Jalali told reporters Oct. 13 that the Iranian parliament adopted legislation urging the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to build up to 20 additional nuclear power plants by 2030 to produce about 20,000 megawatts of power.

Those plans mirror intentions expressed by the shah of Iran during the 1970s for a plan to produce 20,000 megawatts. The plans were abandoned following Iran’s 1979 revolution. Although the United States was engaged in nuclear cooperation with Iran at that time, Washington suspected that the shah was seeking a capability that could be used for nuclear weapons and objected to Iran’s development of certain sensitive fuel-cycle technologies.

In order to fuel its ambitious nuclear power program, Iran also would need access to sufficient amounts of uranium. Iran has two uranium mines located at Saghand and Bandar Abbas, but only the latter is operating. The Saghand mine contains low-grade ore, which is less economical to mine.

In an Oct. 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Mark Fitzpatrick, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, said these reserves are “barely sufficient for one reactor,” let alone the larger numbers that Iran has cited as part of its nuclear power plans.

He added that additional reserves may be found with extensive searching, “but it is highly unlikely that reserves would thus expand to anywhere near the amount required for self-sufficiency in uranium for the envisioned program.”

UN sanctions adopted in June prohibit Iran from acquiring stakes in uranium mines abroad. Prior sanctions resolutions prohibit Iran from importing uranium.

In October, Iranian officials announced that the country would intensify its search for uranium reserves and indicated that the government had allocated funds to begin uranium ore extraction at the Saghand mine.

The Tehran Times quoted AEOI Director Ali Akbar Salehi Oct. 21 as stating, “We have expanded our exploration activities…and have focused on places where there are hopes of greater uranium reserves” in order to become self-sufficient to fuel Iran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr.

Russia, however, has agreed to provide fuel for the Bushehr reactor, which it constructed, for at least the next 10 years. According to Russian diplomats, Moscow’s state-run nuclear conglomerate Rosatom has not provided Iran with the proprietary information needed to manufacture the reactor fuel.

Iran has recently proposed a joint venture with Russia for nuclear fuel production, an arrangement that might provide it with some proprietary rights or information needed to build the specialized fuel assemblies.

Following years of delays, Iran’s Bushehr plant was completed last year, and the lengthy process of loading fuel for the reactor began in August. (See ACT, September 2010.) However, due to technical problems, the fuel loading has been delayed.

AEOI Deputy Director Mohammad Ahmadian told the Islamic Republic News Agency Oct. 16 that “there are some minor problems including a small leak in a pool in the middle of the reactor which was fixed.” He added that correcting the problem will take about one month.

Talks Proposed for Mid-November

Meanwhile, senior Iranian officials appeared to respond favorably last month to a proposal by six world powers to hold negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program in mid-November, potentially paving the way for the first such talks in more than a year. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus Germany have been involved in diplomatic efforts to address Iran’s nuclear program since 2006.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said during an Oct. 15 press conference in Brussels that he welcomed upcoming talks with the group, known as the P5+1.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has already proposed late October or early November as appropriate time for negotiations,” he said.

On behalf of the P5+1, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton Oct. 14 proposed holding negotiations with Iran Nov. 15-17.

The six countries are waiting for a formal response from Iran.

Iranian officials have said that Tehran still needs more details on the nature of the talks before formally responding.

Iran’s state-run Press TV Oct. 20 quoted Tehran’s deputy nuclear negotiator, Abolfazl Zohrehvand, as saying that Iran received a letter from Ashton but that it “only addresses issues such as where, when and how long the talks should be and does not deal with more important issues, such as the framework, aim and direction of the talks.”

Reuters reported Oct. 22, and diplomatic sources confirmed, that a letter Ashton sent to Iran’s EU ambassador that same day re-invited Iran for talks and stated that “the main focus of the meeting would be on the question of the Iranian nuclear program, not excluding any other items pertinent to the discussion.”