Iran Says It Needs More 20%-Enriched Fuel

Peter Crail

Iran will need to increase its production of 20 percent-enriched uranium, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Director Fereydoun Abbasi said April 11, a move that may further complicate international diplomatic efforts addressing Iran’s nuclear program.

He told the Iranian Students News Agency that Iran will build four or five reactors for research and medical isotope production in the coming years and that the reactors will use 20 percent-enriched uranium fuel. “We will increase the volume of the 20 percent enrichment based on the country’s needs,” he said.

The five permanent UN Security Council members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany—the P5+1—have stressed that any negotiated confidence-building measure on Iran’s nuclear program must include a halt to Iran’s production of 20 percent-enriched uranium. (See ACT, March 2011.)

After the breakdown of initial talks in the fall of 2009 between the P5+1 and Iran to provide Iran with fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), Iran began increasing the enrichment level of a portion of its uranium from 4 percent to about 20 percent in February 2010, claiming that it would use the material to fuel the reactor. (See ACT, March 2010.) The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report this February stating that Iran produced a total of about 44 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium by the middle of that month.

Most nuclear power reactors operate on uranium enriched to about 4 percent of the fissile isotope uranium-235, but many research reactors, including the TRR, operate on fuel enriched to about 20 percent. Uranium enriched to 20 percent can be used to shorten the time frame to produce weapons-grade uranium, which is generally enriched to about 90 percent or higher.

Since Iran began producing uranium enriched to about 20 percent last year, Iranian officials have issued conflicting statements about whether the country would continue the process if it received fuel from abroad, claiming on some occasions that 20 percent enrichment would stop if Iran received fuel and at other times that it would continue anyway. (See ACT, June 2010.) The Iranian parliament passed legislation last July supporting the continued production of 20 percent-enriched uranium.

Despite Iran’s stated intention to use the 20 percent-enriched uranium to produce fuel for the TRR, its ability to do so has come under question. Former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen said last November that Iran would still need one to two years to manufacture fuel for the TRR safely.

Centrifuge Manufacturing Site

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) April 9 as stating that an industrial complex called Taba, about 80 miles west of Tehran, was one of several sites involved in manufacturing centrifuges for Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. Salehi’s statement was in response to a claim two days earlier by the dissident group National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which announced at a Washington press conference April 7 that Iran had used the Taba site to produce parts for about 100,000 centrifuges.

The NCRI is an arm of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, which the United States designates as a foreign terrorist organization. Although Iran has confirmed the centrifuge manufacturing activities at the Taba site, the NCRI’s claim about the number of centrifuge components produced there is inconsistent with IAEA and expert estimates that Iran has produced components for 10,000 to 12,000 machines.

The IAEA has sought access to Iran’s centrifuge manufacturing sites since February 2006, when Iran stopped providing the agency with expanded access under an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Without that protocol, the IAEA does not have the legal authority to inspect Iran’s centrifuge manufacturing plants. IRNA quoted Iran’s IAEA envoy, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, as saying April 12, “Iran has no obligation to allow inspectors to inspect this factory,” referring to the Taba site.

Salehi also announced April 9 that Russia is reloading the fuel for Iran’s first nuclear power plant at Bushehr after it was abruptly unloaded in February due to damage to a reactor cooling pump. He said the plant would go critical early this month.