Iran announced last month that it began installing advanced centrifuges at its production-scale uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that the installation of 180 advanced centrifuges had begun.
Fereydoun Abbasi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said in Tehran on Feb. 13 that Iran is “carrying out the installation” of the new centrifuges and would be “starting them up gradually.” When operational, they would be used to produce uranium enriched to 3.5 percent, he said. Uranium enriched to this level is suitable for nuclear power reactors, but Iran’s sole nuclear power reactor is fueled by enriched uranium provided by Russia.
For that reason and others, some countries have said Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. With further enrichment, the reactor-grade fuel could be made suitable for use in a nuclear weapon. Iran insists that its nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes.
Tehran notified the IAEA on Jan. 23 of its intention to start installing the new machines, known as the IR-2M, according to the IAEA quarterly report on Iran released Feb. 21. The IR-2M is a second-generation model based on Iran’s original gas centrifuge, the IR-1. According to IAEA reports from 2012, Iran has been testing the IR-2M in its research and development area at Natanz for years, but the advanced centrifuges had not been introduced into the facility there that produces enriched uranium.
The IAEA report did not state how many of the new machines Iran planned to install, but it said that the Jan. 23 letter mentioned installing them in a particular unit at the Natanz enrichment plant. That unit can hold approximately 3,000 centrifuges. When operational, these centrifuges could significantly increase Iran’s ability to produce enriched uranium, as they are likely to be more efficient that the IR-1s. According to the IAEA report, Iran was producing uranium enriched to 3.5 percent and 20 percent at Natanz, using approximately 9,300 IR-1 centrifuges.
In Feb. 8 remarks in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Iran’s intention to install the advanced centrifuges “disturbing,” but affirmed the U.S. commitment to negotiating with Iran. (See "P5+1 Revises Proposal Ahead of New Talks.")
Iran maintains that its nuclear program is peaceful and that the uranium enriched to 20 percent is necessary to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. The international community is concerned about the growing stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium, which can be transformed relatively easily into weapons-grade material.
Iran also produces uranium enriched to 20 percent at its facility at Fordow, but there is no indication that Tehran plans to install the advanced centrifuges at that facility. In its November report on Iran, the IAEA said approximately 2,800 IR-1 centrifuges, Fordow’s maximum capacity, had been installed at the facility already.
According to Abbasi, the new centrifuges are “more durable” and “more efficient.”
R. Scott Kemp, a former science adviser in the State Department’s Office of the Special Advisor for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, said that it is difficult to predict how the new centrifuges will perform because a centrifuge’s performance in a cascade could be “significantly different” from its performance as an individual machine. In an enrichment plant, numerous centrifuge machines are linked together into cascades.
In a Feb. 14 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Kemp said that although Iran can make the IR-2M and therefore understands its characteristics, the real question is whether Tehran “can supply or obtain the needed raw materials,” particularly carbon fiber, to mass-produce the new centrifuges. A June 2012 report by a UN Security Council panel of experts that monitors the implementation of sanctions against Iran identified high-quality carbon fiber as a material that Iran was unlikely to be able to produce domestically.
According to former IAEA Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen, now a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the installation of 3,000 advanced centrifuges could double Iran’s output of uranium enriched to reactor grade.
Speaking at a Feb. 6 event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Heinonen said the IR-2M optimally is about six times more efficient than the IR-1. Because of sanctions, however, Iran is unlikely to have obtained the highest-grade materials for manufacturing the centrifuges and therefore is unlikely to reach that level, he said. A tripling or quadrupling in efficiency might be a more realistic estimate, he said.
Also on Feb. 13, IAEA representatives met with Iranian officials in Tehran to continue negotiating an approach for the agency’s investigations into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear activities. Iran and the IAEA have been meeting for more than a year in an attempt to reach agreement on the scope and sequence of the investigations.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, led the Iranian delegation. In remarks after the meeting, he said that the parties had made progress and agreed on “some points,” but he did not specify what the points were.
IAEA Deputy Director-General Herman Nackaerts, the agency’s top safeguards official, said the parties “could not finalize” an agreement and did not comment on whether they had made progress. He said that the IAEA “will work hard to try and resolve the remaining differences.” The two sides did not agree on a date for another round of talks, Nackaerts said, adding that “time is needed to reflect on the way forward.”