By Kelsey Davenport, Daryl G. Kimball, and Greg Thielmann (Updated November 18)
The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi and Yukiya Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano, right, after signing an agreement in Tehran on November 11 giving the agency greater access to some nuclear sites in Iran. (Credit: European Pressphoto Agency)
During the negotiations in Geneva on November 7-10, Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) made significant progress toward reaching a "first phase" deal that would halt the advance in Iran's nuclear program, address the most urgent proliferation concerns, and improve international inspectors' monitoring capabilities. The two sides will reconvene in Geneva on November 20.
The most recent quarterly report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran's nuclear program is a reminder of the risk posed by not securing a "first phase" agreement to halt Iran's progress. While this report indicates that Iran has made a political decision to pause the expansion of its enrichment capabilities, it could quickly reverse course and nearly double its numbers of operating centrifuges if a first phase deal is not reached soon.
Since the August 2013 report, Iran's installation of centrifuges at its two safeguarded enrichment facilities, Natanz and Fordow, was virtually nonexistent – a significant change from past reports. (See chart at the end of this post for a look at how Iran's centrifuge deployment has changed since 2010.)
According to the November 14, 2013 report, Iran's stockpile of 20 percent enriched material only increased slightly to 196 kilograms. This keeps Iran well below the required amount which, when further enriched is enough for one nuclear weapon.
Key Highlights from the Report:
Some Progress Made on Resolving IAEA's Concerns
After nearly two years of fruitless negotiations, Iran and the IAEA have finally begun to make concrete progress on negotiating an approach for the agency's investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program. On November 11, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, signed a "Joint Statement on a Framework for Cooperation." The statement said that Iran and the IAEA would "strengthen their cooperation and dialogue aimed at ensuring the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme through the resolution of all outstanding issues that have not already been resolved by the IAEA."
The IAEA laid out its concerns about past military activities in an annex to its November 2011 report to the IAEA. Since February 2012, the two sides have been negotiating an approach to resolve these issues. The IAEA and Iran agreed to abandon the document it had been using to lay out the parameters of the agency's investigation, the so-called "structured approach" and develop a new framework at an Oct. 28-29, 2013 meeting in Vienna. This led to the signing of the joint framework in Tehran on November 11.
The agreement also contained six actions that Iran would take over the next three months:
The Gchine mine provides natural uranium for Iran's nuclear program. It is one of two mining and milling operations that Iran operates. It is estimated to produce about 21 tons of uranium every year. Gchine was declared to the IAEA in 2004, when Iran was voluntary implementing its Additional Protocol. Iran stopped implementing its Additional Protocol in 2006.
Iran has not allowed IAEA inspectors to visit the Heavy Water Production Plant at the Arak site since August 2011 or take samples of the heavy water it is producing. The plant is producing heavy water to fuel the Arak IR-40 reactor, which Iran states will begin operations in mid-2014.
Iran has not provided the IAEA with any design information regarding the four new research reactors that it intends to build. Iran says that potential sites are "under evaluation." If Iran were implementing the Modified Code 3.1 of its Safeguards agreement, Tehran would be obligated to submit design information to the IAEA as soon as the decision to build the research reactors was made. Iran unilaterally stopped implementing Code 3.1 in March 2007.
Iran repeatedly told the IAEA that it would provide the agency with information about its plans for the16 power plants that Tehran intends to build. It has not yet done so. The IAEA maintains that failure to provide the information is a violation of the modified Code 3.1 of Iran's Safeguards Agreement.
In August 2010, Iran announced that it chose the location for 10 new enrichment facilities. Tehran has not, however, provided the IAEA with design information for the facilities or the locations of five sites that have already been decided.
In October 2003, Iran announced that it possessed laser enrichment technology and had tested the technology on small amounts of nuclear materials in violation of its safeguards agreement. The IAEA was able to inspect the facility where laser enrichment had taken place in 2004 and confirm the main elements of the program. In February 2010, Iran announced again that it possessed laser enrichment technology. Iran has not provided any information to the IAEA regarding this announcement. It is unlikely that Iran's laser enrichment effort poses a serious proliferation risk.
Rouhani Following Through
Shortly after his election, President Hassan Rouhani pledged to make Iran's nuclear program more transparent. Reaching this initial agreement with the IAEA is an important opportunity to build confidence and trust between Iran and the IAEA. Although it does not resolve all of the agency's outstanding concerns about Iran's past nuclear activities, following through on these six actions over the next three months will demonstrate that Rouhani is willing to back his words with actions. And taken together, further information about Iran's existing and future nuclear facilities will give the international community a clear picture of Iran's nuclear program.
These six activities were part of the agency's original approach for the investigation, which divided the IAEA's actions into three topical areas. These actions are part of the third area, "Completeness of Iran's Declaration." The other two areas for investigation are the "Peaceful Nature of Iran's Nuclear Program" and the "Correctness of Iran's Nuclear Material Declarations."
In November 11 remarks, Amano said that the IAEA is "firmly committed to resolving all outstanding issues" and that while the agreement is an important step, "much more needs to be done."
Iran and the IAEA will meet again on December 11 to continue negotiations over the remaining issues and discuss implementation of the six actions outlined in the agreement.
Less than a Bomb's Worth of 20 Percent Enriched Uranium
Iran's stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium is one of the most urgent proliferation concerns and is one that would be addressed the potential "first phase" agreement. Iran produces uranium enriched to 3.5 percent (reactor grade) and 20 percent (for research reactors.) About 90 percent of the work to enrich to weapons grade (over 90 percent enriched U-235) has occurred by the time enrichment reaches 20 percent.
According to the November 2013 IAEA report, Iran currently has a stockpile of 196 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 20 percent, only a slight increase since the IAEA's August 2013 report, when Iran had 185 kilograms available. Approximately 240-250 kilograms which, when further enriched to weapons grade, is enough for one bomb.
Iran is continuing to produce uranium enriched to the 20 percent level at a relatively constant rate of 15 kilograms a month. In total, Iran has produced 410 kilograms of 20 percent enriched material, an increase of about 38 kilograms from the 372 kilograms reported by the IAEA in August 2013. (See the chart at the end of this report for a look at how Iran's 20 percent stockpile has grown since Tehran began enriching to 20 percent in 2010.)
However, since Iran's uranium enrichment facilities and uranium stockpiles are regularly monitored by the IAEA —on a weekly basis at key facilities— it would be very likely that any diversion of nuclear material for further enrichment would be detected long before it could be used to build a weapon. Furthermore, additional time would be required to build a workable and deliverable weapon.
Consequently, the U.S. intelligence community has said on several occasions that Iran remains over a year away from a nuclear bomb, once it chose to pursue nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, if Iran were to move toward building nuclear weapons, it would need to expel IAEA inspectors, use existing facilities and stockpiles to produce weapons grade uranium, and probably test a nuclear device, all of which would raise the alarm to the international community.
The 20 percent uranium hexafluoride gas that is no longer part of the stockpile (about 214 kilograms) has been converted to a solid uranium oxide powder to make fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. The conversion takes place at the Esfahan Fuel Plate Fabrication Facility.
Uranium oxide can be converted back into uranium hexafluoride gas within weeks, and Iran has the capabilities to do so, but it is unclear how much of the material would be lost in the process. Although the exact amount of wastage is not known, experts assess that it could be as much as 60 percent and that reconversion would likely be noticed by the IAEA.
The first phase of a good agreement would require Iran to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20 percent and continue converting its stockpile of uranium hexafluoride to uranium oxide.
No New Advanced Centrifuges
Iran's deployment of advanced centrifuges in its commercial scale uranium enrichment plant at the Natanz facility poses a significant proliferation concern because these advanced centrifuges, the IR-2Ms, would likely enrich uranium 3-4 times more efficiently than the model that Iran is currently using (the IR-1) for all its enrichment activities.
Iran has currently installed 1,008 IR-2M centrifuges in one unit at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, the same number reported by the agency as of August 2013. Preparatory installation work is underway on a further 12 cascades, according to the agency's November report..
None of the IR-2Ms are enriching uranium at this point, although they have been vacuum tested. Iran has said that when running, the IR-2Ms will produce reactor grade uranium, which is enriched to 3.5 percent.
The unit at Natanz is designed for about 3,000 centrifuges. Iran began installing the IR-2Ms in production scale cascades for the first time in February 2013.
The IR-2M has been undergoing testing for years, and is a second-generation variation of the gas centrifuge Iran currently uses for all enrichment activities, the IR-1, which is less efficient and prone to crashing.
As of August 24, Iran said that the performance of the IR-2m will be tested using these six cascades, but did not give a date as to when testing will begin.
In the first phase of a deal between Iran and the P5+1, Iran could be required to halt the installation of further IR-2Ms and prohibit the operation of the installed IR-2Ms.
Only Four New IR-1s at Natanz
In the remaining units at Natanz, Iran has installed 15,420 IR-1 centrifuges to produce uranium enriched to 3.5 percent, of which approximately 8,700 are operational in 52 cascades. Iran only installed four IR-1 centrifuges since the August report, a dramatic decrease from the over 1,800 it installed between May and August 2013.
As of the August 2013 report, Iran also was operating more centrifuges - approximately 9,200 were operational in 53 cascades.
In total, Iran has a stockpile of 7,153 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent. While Iran has produced more material enriched to 3.5 percent (about 10,357 kilograms in total), the difference has been further enriched to 20 percent at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant and at Fordow. As of the August 2013 report, the stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium was 6,774 kilograms.
(Update: The IAEA report indicates that Iran also is making progress on a facility at Esfahan called the Enriched UO2 Powder Plant. This plant, which Iran says will begin December 7, 2013, is designed to convert 3.5 percent uranium hexaflouride gas to uranium dioxide powder. Uranium dioxide powder (UO2) is used as fuel for power plants. Converting portions of Iran's 3.5 percent stockpile from hexaflouride gas to powder would make it more difficult for the 3.5 percent to be further enriched, because it would need to be converted back to gas form.)
While Iran has steadily increased its installation of IR-1 centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz, the number of operational IR-1 centrifuges has remained relatively constant over the past year and a half.
The additional 328 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz are located in the above ground Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant. These centrifuges are producing uranium enriched to 20 percent. This number of centrifuges has remained unchanged. (See chart at the end of this post for a look at how Iran's centrifuge deployment has changed since 2010.)
According to the November 2013 report Iran is also continuing to test more advanced models. In its Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plan at Natanz, testing is currently underway for the IR-4, the IR-5, the IR-6 and the IR-6s. Iran has not indicated when any of these advanced models might be used on a commercial scale to produce enriched uranium.
Halting installation of IR-1 centrifuges and maintaining the current levels of operating IR-1 centrifuges in the first phase of an agreement would pause further development of Iran's uranium enrichment program and put additional time on the clock to negotiate an agreement that verifiably rolls-back Iran's overall enrichment capabilities.
No Major Developments at Arak
The Arak heavy water reactor is a long-term proliferation concern because it is relatively well-suited to produce plutonium. UN Security Council resolutions have called on Iran to halt construction on the reactor completely.
According to the November 2013 IAEA report, Iran continues to move make progress on the construction of the Arak IR-40 heavy water reactor. The IAEA reported that Iran completed connecting the reactor vessel to the cooling and moderator piping, but did not complete the installation of any "major components," since the previous report in August. Arak is not scheduled to become operational until mid-2014, according to an August 25 letter from Iran to the agency, a delay from the IAEA's May 2013 report, when Iran estimated early 2014 as the probably start date.
Given that construction of the reactor has been beset with delays, it is likely that the date for fuel loading could be pushed back even further into late 2014 or beyond. It is difficult to assess what remains to be completed, because, while IAEA inspectors have access to the facility, Iran has not provided the agency with updated design information on the reactor since 2006.
In the August 25 letter, Iran also said it would notify the agency six months before introducing fuel in the reactor.
Independent experts assess that if Arak functions at optimal capacity, it could be used to produce sufficient plutonium to yield 9 kg annually, after separation, enough for approximately 1.5 nuclear weapons. However, the reactor at Arak would need to be operational for about a year before any plutonium could be extracted. Even then, Iran would need a reprocessing facility to separate the plutonium from the spent fuel, which it does not have. In 2004 Iran dropped plans for a reprocessing facility at the Arak site, and Tehran says it does not plan to build a reprocessing facility.
Fordow Remains Unchanged
According to the November 2013 IAEA report, the number of centrifuges enriching uranium at Fordow remains at 696, as it has since the facility began operations in 2011. The 696 centrifuges are enriching uranium to 20 percent in four cascades.
Fordow is designed to hold 2,976 centrifuges in 16 cascades, of which 2,710 have been installed. Since its February 2013 report, the IAEA has noted that 11 additional cascades had been vacuum tested and are ready to begin enriching uranium. Only 1 cascade remains incomplete.
Recent progress on increasing monitoring and transparency through IAEA agreements and Iran's proposal during talks with the P5+1 suggests that Tehran is willing to seriously consider a pause in its nuclear program development while negotiating an ultimate agreement on program limits in exchange for sanctions relief.