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Iran to Give IAEA Details on Detonators
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Kelsey Davenport

Iran will provide the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with information about its past development of a detonator that could be used to as a trigger in nuclear weapons, according to an agreement reached by the two sides last month.

In a Feb. 9 joint statement, Iran and the IAEA described the two days of talks in Tehran as “constructive” and announced seven actions for Iran to take by May 15 to further the agency’s investigations into its unresolved concerns about Iran’s current nuclear program and past actions.

One of the actions requires Tehran to provide the IAEA with information on exploding bridge wire detonators, which can be used to trigger nuclear weapons. They can also be used in civilian applications, including drilling for oil and gas, and for conventional military explosives.

The Feb. 9 announcement follows an agreement reached last Nov. 11, in which Iran and the IAEA pledged to cooperate to “resolve all present and past issues.” (See ACT, December 2013.) The IAEA laid out these concerns, including allegations of activities with possible relevance for developing nuclear weapons, in detail in its November 2011 report to the agency’s Board of Governors. (See ACT, December 2011.) In early 2012, the IAEA began negotiating an approach to its investigation with Iran, but did not make any progress until President Hassan Rouhani took office in August.

The other actions Iran agreed to take during the February talks include providing the IAEA with access to the Saghand uranium mine and to Iran’s uranium-concentration plant for refining uranium ore, information on the heavy-water reactor at Arak, and access to a center that was used in the past for laser uranium-enrichment experiments.

In the Feb. 9 announcement, Iran and the IAEA also reported that the six initial actions that Iran agreed to take as part of the Nov. 11 agreement had been completed on schedule.

IAEA Deputy Director-General Tero Varjoranta told reporters Feb. 10 that Iran took “all the initial pragmatic measures” and that “everything has gone as planned” since November. Varjoranta led the IAEA delegation to Tehran for the February talks.

The initial six measures from the Nov. 11 agreement included a Dec. 8 IAEA visit to the Heavy Water Production Plant at the Arak site, which produces heavy water for a reactor under construction, and a Jan. 29 visit to the Gchine uranium mine. The agency has not been able to visit either site for years despite requests for access.

Iran also provided the IAEA with information on its planned construction of nuclear power reactors, research reactors, and uranium-enrichment facilities.

In its Feb. 20 quarterly report on Iran, the IAEA summarized the contents of two letters that Tehran sent to the agency Feb. 8 regarding its future activities. Iran wrote that it had identified 16 sites for nuclear power reactors and was planning to build a light-water reactor fueled by 20 percent enriched uranium for medical isotope production and nuclear research. The site selection process for the reactor is in its “preliminary stages,” according to a passage from the letter that appeared in the IAEA report.

In a Jan. 18 letter to the agency also quoted in the IAEA report, Iran said it had begun the site selection for five of 10 planned uranium-enrichment sites but that there would be no progress on constructing these facilities during the following six months. Iran committed not to build any new enrichment facilities as part of a Nov. 24 agreement reached with six world powers (see).

Although these initial actions provided the agency with information on Iran’s future nuclear plans and access to several facilities, they did not address the activities with potential nuclear weapons applications—“possible military dimensions,” in IAEA parlance.

Past Cooperation

Iran previously has provided the agency with some information on nuclear activities with possible military dimensions.

These prior discussions included exchanges between Tehran and the IAEA on information regarding bridge wire detonators in 2008, which the IAEA summarized in its November 2011 report.

During the 2008 exchanges, Iran said that it was developing them for “civil and conventional military applications.” The IAEA, however, maintained in the report that given their “limited civilian and conventional military applications,” Iran’s work on developing the detonators is a “matter of concern.”

The IAEA also said in the November 2011 report it had information that Iran conducted practical tests of the bridge wire detonators to see if they would “perform satisfactorily over long distances between a firing point and a test device located down a deep shaft.” This information would be useful if Iran were to carry out a nuclear test, the agency stated in the report.

Even after the information on the detonator development is given to the IAEA, the agency has other unresolved concerns about alleged Iranian activities related to nuclear weapons development. In a list of topics requiring further investigation that the agency presented to Iran in February 2012, the IAEA included neutron initiation, tests of warhead integration with missiles, hydrodynamic experiments, and the possibility of past explosive testing at the Parchin military facility.

At his Feb. 10 press conference, Varjoranta said “a lot of work” remains to be done on the possible military dimensions. He said that there will be “new steps” after May 15.

Iran has maintained that the IAEA allegations of activities with possible military dimensions are baseless. On Feb. 7, the day before the meeting began, Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said that Iran is ready to “answer all the questions” about its “peaceful nuclear activities.”

Laser Enrichment

As part of the Nov. 11 agreement, Iran provided the IAEA with information on its experiments with laser-based uranium-enrichment technology and an explanation for Tehran’s February 2010 statement that it possessed this technology.

According to a second Jan. 18 letter quoted in the Feb. 20 IAEA report, Iran said that these experiments ended in 2003 and the February 2010 statement referenced that earlier work. Since 2003, “there had not been any especially designed or prepared systems, equipment and components for use in laser-based enrichment plants in Iran,” the letter was quoted as saying.

As a follow-up action, Iran agreed Feb. 9 to allow the IAEA to visit its Lashkar Ab’ad laser center where the enrichment experiments are known to have taken place prior to 2003.

Varjoranta said the IAEA has a plan for proceeding with the issue of laser-based uranium enrichment and that he felt confident that the IAEA will “find out” what it needs to know about Iran’s work in this area.

Posted: March 4, 2014