By Paul Kerr
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei provided an update on the agency’s investigation of Iran’s nuclear programs in a June 1 report to the IAEA Board of Governors.
According to the report, the most important outstanding issues concerning these programs have yet to be resolved, partly because Iran delayed until April the IAEA inspections that were scheduled for March. The delay meant that environmental samples could not be taken and analyzed in time for the board’s most recent meeting, which began June 14.
Last October, Tehran gave the IAEA what it claimed was a complete declaration of its nuclear programs, but a February report from ElBaradei stated that the agency’s subsequent investigation revealed the declaration to be incomplete.
Gas Centrifuge Program
The IAEA reports that several major issues concerning Tehran’s gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment program still need to be resolved. The program began in 1985 and now consists of a small pilot facility at Natanz, as well as a larger commercial facility at the same site. Uranium-enrichment facilities can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, as well as fuel for civilian nuclear reactors. Iran was operating the pilot facility and planning to install up to 50,000 centrifuges at the commercial facility, but suspended work at the site last December after agreeing to do so in October 2003.
The agency is still investigating the source of enriched uranium particles found at several locations in Iran. This “contamination” has caused concern because it suggests that Iran may have conducted nuclear activities that it has not yet admitted to and may be concealing nuclear material it either produced or imported.
Iran has admitted to testing centrifuges with nuclear material at a facility called the Kalaye Electric Company without first informing the IAEA, a violation of its safeguards agreement with the agency. However, Tehran has said it produced only uranium enriched to a very low degree and has attributed the IAEA’s discovery of other types of enriched uranium particles to contamination from centrifuge components obtained from a procurement network run by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Iranian officials maintain that they do not know the components’ origin, but a February report from Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police states that used centrifuges were sent from Pakistan to Iran via the United Arab Emirates during the mid-1990s.
ElBaradei reported in February that Iran’s domestically manufactured components have been contaminated with a different type of enriched uranium than their imported equivalents. Furthermore, environmental samples taken at the Kalaye facility and another site called Farayand Technique indicate the presence of 36 percent enriched uranium—material Iran has not declared to the IAEA and which probably did not come from imported components.
IAEA and Department of State officials told Arms Control Today that such uranium has been used in Soviet-designed research reactors, and as fuel for nuclear-powered submarines. Uranium enriched to this level would probably not be used in nuclear weapons.
The IAEA is also trying to determine the source of uranium hexafluoride contamination found in a storage facility located at the Tehran Research Reactor. Uranium hexafluoride is the feedstock for centrifuges. The IAEA’s discovery, first reported in June 2003, that uranium hexafluoride was missing from cylinders imported in 1991 raised suspicions that Iran had tested centrifuges with it—a suspicion that proved correct. Before it admitted to the testing, Iran had said the material leaked from the cylinders, but this admission still left unexplained the contamination in the storage facility.
Tehran now admits that it stored “bottles containing [uranium hexafluoride] from domestic [research and development] conversion activities,” but insists that this material leaked from the bottles. IAEA experts do not “consider this explanation credible.” Iran has admitted to conducting uranium-conversion experiments and has a facility that can convert uranium oxide to uranium hexafluoride. (See ACT, December 2003.)
Additionally, the agency is in the process of determining the scope of Iran’s research and development into a centrifuge based on a common design known as the “P-2,” which is more advanced than the type installed in the Natanz facility. Libya also acquired from the Khan network centrifuges based on this design called the “L-2.” This part of the investigation has been particularly contentious because Iran failed to declare this work to the agency in October. ElBaradei reported in February that Iran had told the agency that it had not received any centrifuge components from foreign sources.
Iran has now admitted, however, to acquiring magnets for the centrifuges “from Asian suppliers” and has also disclosed that a private Iranian company made inquiries about procuring 4,000 magnets “suitable for use” in the advanced centrifuges. Moreover, IAEA Deputy Director-General Pierre Goldschmidt stated June 17 that the agency has “indications” that Iran “had shown interest in acquiring up to 100,000” additional magnets. The new procurement information “bring[s] into question previous statements by Iran that the P-2 programme was research and development,” Goldschmidt added.
Furthermore, Tehran has stated that a key component for the P-2 centrifuges was manufactured in a facility associated with Iran’s Ministry of Defense, contradicting Iran’s previous assertion that the components were manufactured at a private workshop. This revelation perhaps suggests that Iran’s nuclear program is for military purposes.
The report also casts doubt on Iran’s account of the pace of its P-2 centrifuge work. Iran contends that it obtained the designs in 1995 from a foreign source but did not begin work until 2001. IAEA experts, however, believe that Iran’s program is too advanced for this time frame to be accurate. The report adds that Iran received the designs from the same source Libya used to obtain designs for its recently ended centrifuge program, but does not explicitly name the Khan network. (See ACT, March 2004.)
Iran told the IAEA in October that it had been pursuing a laser-based uranium-enrichment program since 1991, but ElBaradei’s June report indicates that Iran understated the enrichment capabilities of its laser equipment.
Suspension of Enrichment Activities
Despite an October pledge to suspend its enrichment activities, Iran continued to assemble centrifuges until mid-January and manufacture centrifuge components until February, claiming that such activities were consistent with its agreement.
At that point, Iran told the IAEA that, beginning the following month, it would suspend its assembling and testing of centrifuges, as well as the manufacture of related components. However, despite Iran’s claim that manufacturing had stopped in early April, three private companies are continuing to build components.
The report cautions that “[s]ome of the activities subject to suspension, such as component production, are inherently difficult to verify,” adding that the IAEA “cannot provide any assurance” that components are not being produced at sites Iran has not identified to the IAEA.
Iran has provided IAEA inspectors access to facilities they wish to inspect, the report says, but Tehran’s discussions with the agency regarding the details of inspections at military sites delayed visits to workshops at those sites. Inspectors had visited two of the three military sites in question as of June 1.
Moreover, Iran has also announced that it plans to produce uranium hexafluoride in its uranium-conversion facility. Iran says it is only testing the facility, but the IAEA has told Iran that the amount of material it plans to use qualifies the so-called testing as “production of feed material for enrichment processes,” an activity that the report says is “at variance with the [a]gency’s previous understanding of Iran’s decision.” Although Iran told the IAEA that it would begin the tests May 6, it had not done so as of May 21.
Tehran has not undertaken any activities at either its laser facility or the Natanz facility, the report says.
The IAEA is also concerned about Iran separating spent reactor fuel. Such separation is needed before spent nuclear fuel can be reprocessed. Reprocessed fuel can be used to produce plutonium, another explosive material for nuclear weapons.
According to the report, Iran “understated” the amount of plutonium it secretly separated from spent fuel produced in a research reactor in Tehran, although “the amounts produced were only in the milligram range.” In addition, the report suggests that these separation experiments, which the IAEA first reported in November, occurred more recently than Iran had previously declared.
Concern about reprocessing has grown as Iran has nearly completed a light-water reactor (LWR) and announced earlier this year that it would start building a heavy-water reactor in June. (See ACT, May 2004.)
Iran claims the heavy-water reactor is for producing isotopes for civilian purposes, but the report states that Iran was attempting to procure hot cells—facilities used in isotope production that can also be used in reprocessing spent nuclear reactor fuel—with a “wall thickness…more indicative of that required for handling spent fuel.” Iran now says it no longer plans to build hot cells.
The IAEA is continuing to investigate Iran’s production of polonium, a radioisotope that has limited civilian applications but can also be used to trigger a nuclear chain reaction in certain types of nuclear weapons. Iran continues to maintain that it produced the substance for possible use in batteries, but agency investigators regard this explanation as thinly documented and “not entirely adequate,” the report says
ElBaradei reported in February that Tehran had told the IAEA three months earlier that it had produced polonium.
Satellite Photos Show Possible Nuclear Site in Iran
Iran has demolished buildings at the Lavizan Shian site located in Tehran and removed a layer of topsoil, according to commercial satellite images obtained by a U.S. nongovernmental organization. The disclosure led U.S. officials to suggest that Iran has not yet disclosed all facilities and activities associated with its nuclear programs.