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Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment
June 2, 2022
IAEA to Detail Iran's Alleged Warhead Work
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Peter Crail

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano told the agency’s governing board Sept. 12 that he would soon “set out in greater detail” the basis for IAEA concerns regarding suspected Iranian work to develop a nuclear warhead. The IAEA has expressed frustration over the past three years that its efforts to investigate such suspicions have been stonewalled by Iran, which maintains that charges of warhead development are “baseless and false.”

A Sept. 2 IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program said that the agency was “increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear related activities…including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” The report said that the agency continues to receive new information regarding such activities from “many member states” and from its own investigation and that such information is “broadly consistent and credible in terms of technical detail, the time frame in which these activities were conducted and the people and organisations involved.”

For the past several months, the United States has called on Amano to provide his “best assessment” of the evidence of Iran’s suspected warhead development work. (See ACT, July/August 2011.) In a Sept. 14 statement to the board, U.S. Permanent Representative to the IAEA Glyn Davies said the only way for Iran to resolve the issues is through Tehran’s “complete, immediate, and expansive cooperation.”

In June, Amano provided such an assessment of suspicions that Syria was building an undeclared nuclear reactor in support of a nuclear weapons program, a judgment that resulted in the IAEA board’s referral of Syria to the UN Security Council for further action. (See ACT, July/August 2011.) Many countries serving on the board, however, questioned the legitimacy of the referral.

Former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen told an Atlantic Council audience Sept. 15 that it would be “groundbreaking” if Amano made such an assessment of Iran. Heinonen noted the challenges of piecing together many of the weapons-related activities Iran is believed to have pursued and drawing a clear conclusion. “We just see symptoms which are worrisome,” he said, rather than a Manhattan Project-style effort in which “the entire program is laid out in front of you in a project chart.”

He also said that, for Amano to make a judgment about Iran’s suspected weaponization efforts, he would also need to determine whether the work is part of a program dedicated to building a nuclear weapon or is an effort to slowly collect all of the expertise and technical base to build a nuclear weapon if the decision were made to do so.

According to Heinonen, the best way for the IAEA to get to the bottom of the nature of Iran’s suspected warhead work “would be to talk to the people who really know,” adding that “there may only be a handful of people who really know the goal of the program.”

The agency’s Sept. 2 report said that the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program were discussed by the agency and Iranian officials over the past several months, but it did not provide any further detail. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s permanent representative to the IAEA, said in a Sept. 6 interview that Iran hoped that those discussions would continue (see page 8).

Centrifuges Installed at Fordow

The IAEA report also said that, for the first time, Iran has begun installing centrifuges at its Fordow uranium-enrichment plant, a facility that was first publicly revealed by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States in 2009 and that Iran failed to declare to the IAEA until that year.

Last June, Iran announced that it would soon begin using the plant to produce uranium enriched to 20 percent uranium-235 to produce fuel for research reactors and that it would triple such production through the use of more-advanced centrifuge designs it has been developing. The Sept. 2 IAEA report said that as of Aug. 20, Iran had installed one of two centrifuge cascades designated for the production of 20 percent-enriched uranium. A cascade is a series of interlinked centrifuges.

Although the report did not specify the type of machine being installed, diplomatic sources confirmed that the centrifuges are IR-1 machines, a crash-prone design Iran currently uses at its commercial-scale Natanz enrichment plant. The improved designs Iran has been developing, called the IR-2m and IR-4, are believed to enrich uranium three times faster than the IR-1.

The advanced designs Iran intended to install at the Fordow plant appear to be in the final stages of testing and development. Iran told the IAEA in January that it would install two 164-centrifuge cascades at its Natanz pilot plant, one for each of the new centrifuge designs. (See ACT, March 2011.) The recent IAEA report said that such installation remained ongoing as of late August, with roughly half of the machines installed. Iran has been testing smaller cascades of the newer designs for some time, but it is not known to have operated a full set of machines.

Centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning at high speeds to increase the concentration of the fissile isotope U-235 in a uranium-based gas. Most nuclear power reactors run on uranium enriched to about 4 percent U-235 while weapons-grade levels are generally around 90 percent. Davies said in his Sept. 14 statement that “it is important to keep in mind that production of near-20 percent [enriched uranium] completes 90 percent of the work necessary for production of highly enriched uranium,” used for weapons. He added that should Iran decide to use its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched material to produce weapons-grade uranium quickly, IAEA safeguards might provide “some warning...but that will come too late.”

Iran says that it is producing uranium enriched to 20 percent U-235 both for its Tehran Research Reactor, which is running short of fuel, and for additional research reactors it would like to build. In the Sept. 6 interview, Soltanieh said the medical isotopes produced in these reactors would not only be used for domestic demand, but also would be exported to other countries in the region. The IAEA has sought clarification of Iran’s plans to construct additional reactors, but Iran has not been forthcoming. Iran is also not believed to be capable of safely producing fuel for the Tehran reactor. The recent IAEA report said that as of Aug. 10, Iran had not yet installed equipment to fabricate the reactor fuel but had produced a fuel rod that would be shipped to the reactor for testing.

In 2009, Iran agreed “in principle” to a U.S.-initiated plan under which Iran would ship out most of its 4 percent-enriched uranium in return for fuel for the Tehran reactor, but rejected it shortly thereafter. The two sides have since been at odds over details of the proposal. The official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) quoted Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Director Fereydoun Abbasi Aug. 29 as saying that Iran would no longer negotiate over the so-called fuel-swap, stating, “The United States is not a safe country with which we can negotiate a fuel swap or any other issue.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, however, contradicted this stand in a Sept. 13 Washington Post interview, stating that Iran’s production of 20 percent-enriched uranium would be halted if it received fuel for the reactor.

Iran’s decision to produce 20 percent-enriched uranium at its Fordow plant is the second time that Tehran has formally revised its intentions for the facility, which Iran originally claimed was a pilot plant that would carry out research and development (R&D) and enrich uranium to up to 5 percent U-235.

Western governments have charged that the facility was constructed as part of a weapons program, declaring it “inconsistent with a peaceful program.” (See ACT, October 2009.) Since the facility was first revealed in 2009, the IAEA has asked Iran to provide information that would allow the agency to clarify details regarding its construction, including its original purpose, its timing, and the decision to build the facility on an existing military site. The Sept. 2 IAEA report said that Iran has provided some information since the agency’s last report in May but that additional information is still needed.

Iran also appears to have postponed a 2009 decision to construct 10 additional uranium-enrichment plants. In the Aug. 29 article, IRNA quoted Abbasi as saying that Iran would not need such facilities for the next two years. Iran announced last year that studies on the location of the 10 new sites had been completed and that construction of the first such site would begin early this year. Soltanieh said in the interview that this was an “updated decision” determined on the basis of “the political environment of the whole world and also the technical requirements.”

IAEA Visits Centrifuge Workshop

Prior to the week-long IAEA board meeting, Iran allowed agency safeguards chief Herman Nackaerts access to additional facilities that the IAEA has not been able to visit on a regular basis, including an R&D facility for its improved centrifuges and the site of a heavy-water plant and a heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak. IAEA officials welcomed this development, and Amano told the agency’s board Sept. 12, “Iran demonstrated greater transparency than on previous occasions.” It was the first time the agency has been able to inspect the heavy-water production facility since 2005.

Iranian officials have described such access as a significant level of transparency. In the Sept. 6 interview, Soltanieh said that, by allowing access to the centrifuge R&D workshops, Iran was doing something “unprecedented in the history of the IAEA.”

Heinonen, however, in his Atlantic Council comments said the additional access Iran provided did not qualify as a major improvement in transparency. Referring to the IAEA’s access to the centrifuge R&D site, he said, “This kind of workshop visit is a very limited addition to what you need to know,” stressing that visiting the facility is not enough and that measures such as discussions with technicians are needed to get a full accounting of the role such facilities play in Iran’s nuclear program.

Heinonen also noted that Iran is already legally obligated to allow inspections of the other sites Iran allowed Nackaerts to visit.

Western governments have expressed concern that the Arak heavy-water reactor is far better suited for plutonium production for nuclear weapons than for the production of medical isotopes Iran claims the plant is intended to make.

According to the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), Abbasi said Sept. 5 that Iran was prepared to allow the IAEA “full supervision” over its nuclear activities for a period of time if sanctions were removed. “We have proposed that the agency keep Iran’s activities and nuclear program under full supervision for five years, providing the sanctions are lifted,” ISNA quoted him as saying. Abbasi indicated, however, that such supervision would not include implementing an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement, which provides the agency with more extensive access to all nuclear-related facilities. Soltanieh said in the interview that Iran demonstrated such “full transparency” during the visit by Nackaerts. “If you say, which one first, which one next, we have already taken this step.” He added, “Now it is their turn” to take action by lifting sanctions.