The Institute for Science and International Security has posted the latest IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program.
The report provides some additional information about recent developments reported in the media regarding Iran’s installation of centrifuges at the Fordow plant near Qom and plans to increase enrichment to 20%, but leaves out a critical detail: the type of machines Iran is currently installing at Fordow.
Iran initially said that it would begin installing more advanced centrifuge designs at the Fordow plant it has been developing elsewhere. The newer machines can enrich uranium three times faster than the crash-prone IR-1 centrifuges Iran currently relies upon, allowing Iran to triple its 20%-uranium production rate.
However, Iran has not yet completed testing of a full cascade (an interlocked series of centrifuges) of the newer machines, and as the report notes, a full cascade has not even been installed yet at its pilot plant where that testing is to occur. Unless Iran has an undeclared site where that testing has been carried out, it is unlikely that Iran is also preparing to use them for 20% production at Fordow at the moment. Moreover, the cascades that Iran is installing at Fordow are in a newer 174-machine configuration, rather than the more standard 164-machine cascade Iran plans to use to test its newer designs.
Iran’s slipping timeframe for the introduction of its more advanced machines is not surprising since its nuclear program deadlines are often fluid. However, it does appear to back official and independent assessments that Iran still faces problems developing these new centrifuges, including getting sufficient materials to build them in large numbers.
Instead, Iran is more likely to continue relying on its IR-1 machines at Fordow for the time being. Although Iran could possibly use these machines to produce weapons-grade uranium to use in nuclear weapons, it would likely prefer to develop its advanced centrifuges first. Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s point person on Iran sanctions, said at an ACA briefing in March that it would not make sense for Iran to produce material for nuclear weapons “with a machine that produces material so inefficiently.”
The report also notes that Iran allowed the agency to visit a facility where it has been engaged in R&D on these newer machines and “provided extensive information on its current and future R&D work on advanced centrifuges.” The IAEA has not had such access in three years, and has not had regular access to those facilities since Iran stopped following the IAEA’s Additional Protocol (which grants the agency expanded access to all sites) in 2006.
Independent experts have stressed that access to such R&D sites is essential to understanding the full scope of Iran’s enrichment program, and the IAEA has said consistently that it cannot provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear activities are entirely peaceful without the access provided under its Additional Protocol.
Single visits once every few years are not enough, and it is far from the full transparency Iranian officials claim they provide. Gaining such access is an important goal not only in understanding the extent of Iran’s nuclear program, but also in serving as a deterrent against the program’s misuse to develop nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, Iran’s decision to continue producing 20%-enriched uranium beyond the needs of the Tehran Research Reactor suggests that Iran is further configuring its nuclear program for weapons. Iran has no need to stockpile such material, which is much easier to convert to weapons-grade. Even if Iran has taken the proposed fuel-swap off the table, halting the dangerous and entirely unnecessary 20% enrichment should be a priority.