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Iran Moves Forward on Nuclear Facilities

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Kelsey Davenport

Iran installed additional centrifuges in its underground uranium-enrichment facility at Fordow and increased its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, according to a Nov. 16 quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In a Nov. 18 statement, Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh said the report “confirms” that Iran’s nuclear activities are peaceful and that “each gram of uranium” is monitored by the IAEA.

The IAEA, however, concludes in the report that it is “unable to provide credible assurance” that all nuclear material in Iran is in “peaceful activities.”

The report, prepared for the Nov. 29-30 IAEA Board of Governors meeting, found that Iran installed 644 centrifuges at Fordow since the previous report on Aug. 30, bringing the total number of centrifuges there to 2,784, which is the maximum capacity for the facility. The number of centrifuges currently enriching uranium to 20 percent, however, remained unchanged at 696 since the previous report. Since August, nearly 1,000 additional centrifuges also were installed at Natanz, Iran’s second enrichment facility, in the area of the plant that produces reactor-grade uranium, although they too are not yet operational.

The report noted that Iran has increased its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent. The size of this stockpile is a principal concern of the international community because this material is more easily enriched to weapons grade. Iran maintains that the material will be used to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. Resolutions adopted by the IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council, however, have called on Iran to suspend its sensitive nuclear activities, including enrichment.

In total, Iran has produced 232 kilograms of the 20 percent material, of which 135 kilograms are stored and could be enriched further should Tehran decide to pursue nuclear weapons. The remainder of the material has been slated for conversion from uranium hexafluoride gas into uranium oxide, a solid powder from which nuclear fuel is made. Although the powder can be returned to the gas form, experts say this process would take several months.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to comment on the contents of the IAEA report during a Nov. 16 press briefing. She said that the State Department had seen the report and would discuss it with other members of the IAEA board.

Reactors Face Difficulties

The IAEA conducted an inspection of Bushehr, Iran’s sole nuclear power plant, Nov. 6-7 and confirmed in the Nov. 16 report that fuel assemblies had been transferred to the spent fuel pond. Iran informed the IAEA of the transfer Oct. 15.

Mark Fitzpatrick, former deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, told Arms Control Today in a Nov. 20 e-mail that the removal of the fuel “almost certainly indicates a technical problem.” Although it is “theoretically possible” for Iran to extract weapons-usable plutonium from the spent fuel, the IAEA would be “alert to any such misuse,” and speculation about the use of the spent fuel for developing nuclear weapons is “unfounded,” he said.

Russia provides the fuel for Bushehr and currently oversees the operation of the plant. Fereydoun Abbasi, director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Nov. 10 that the handover of the reactor to Iran will be “made in the near future.”

The Nov. 16 report noted that Iran is continuing to move forward on construction of a heavy-water reactor at Arak, despite resolutions adopted by the IAEA board and the UN Security Council calling on Tehran to halt construction. Iran has pushed back its anticipated date of operation for the reactor to the first quarter of 2014, the report said. IAEA reports earlier in 2012 said Iran had estimated that the operation of the reactor would begin in the third quarter of 2013.

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 the medical isotopes Iran claims the plant is intended to make. In 2004, Iran declared it would not construct a facility that could have been used to reprocess the spent fuel.

Structured Approach

Iran and the IAEA are scheduled to meet again Dec. 13 in Tehran to continue negotiations on a so-called structured approach to resolve the agency’s concerns about Iran’s possible weapons-related activities, which were outlined in a November 2011 IAEA report. (See ACT, December 2011.) Negotiations on the framework agreement began in February.

The Nov. 16 report said there have been no “concrete results” from the agency’s attempts to work with Iran to resolve these issues and that, in the past year, the IAEA has obtained additional information that “further corroborates” the analysis from the 2011 report.

Soltanieh said that the Dec. 13 talks could “clear up ambiguities” if political provocation is avoided. Fitzpatrick, who is now at the International Institute for Security Studies in London, said progress was “unlikely” if there was no “positive movement” in talks between Iran and six world powers. He said Iran is “holding the IAEA hostage” to progress in those talks.