February 2012 IAEA Report on Iran: An Initial Review

The Natanz enrichment complex.

(UPDATED at 7:50pm EST)

By Peter Crail and Daryl G. Kimball

The latest quarterly IAEA report on Iran is now in circulation and provides an updated summary of Iran’s nuclear activities and capabilities. The Feb. 24 report suggests that Iran is continuing to make steady progress expanding its enrichment capabilities, but it does not identify any breakthroughs. It also confirms initial impressions that Iran’s announcements last week on a series of “nuclear advances” were hyped. Here is our brief summary of key takeaways:

Fordow Repurposed Again

The agency notes that Iran has now repurposed the Fordow enrichment plant three times. After saying last year that the plant would just be used to enrich uranium to 20%, it will now be enriching uranium to both 20% and 5%.

The rationale behind this repurposing is unclear, but it may signal an effort to maintain operations at the plant even if Iran agrees to an arrangement to halt 20% enrichment. Iranian officials said last year they would halt 20% enrichment if Iran received fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).

Though it would be preferable to consolidate Iran’s enrichment operations to Natanz, ending 20% enrichment is a far more important nonproliferation goal.

Iran has also installed two additional sets of IR-1 centrifuges at the Fordow plant and is installing the casings for IR-1 machines throughout the plant, according to the agency. This suggests that Iran’s initial plans to fill the facility with its more advanced centrifuge models is not going to occur any time soon.

Scaling-Up at Natanz

The most significant step forward Iran appears to have achieved is increasing the number of centrifuges operating at its commercial-scale Natanz enrichment plant by 2,600 centrifuges since last November. Iran now has roughly 8,800 operating centrifuges at the facility, out of about 9,100 installed, which also represents a marked increase in the percentage of machines running. This increase enhances Iran’s ability to produce low-enriched uranium at the plant.

Advanced Centrifuges

Iran has been testing its second-generation models for several years but they do not appear to be ready for full-scale use yet. Iran’s ability to mass produce them is also uncertain.

After unveiling a third-generation centrifuge in 2010 and a fourth just recently, Iran seems to have just started preparing the way to test those models, called the IR-5, IR-6, and IR-6s.  Given the time taken for R&D on Iran’s second-generation machines, it probably quite some time before we see Iran ready these additional models for use.

Investigating Iran’s Warhead Work

The IAEA and Iran are still discussing a way forward for the agency to investigate suspicions that Iran carried out work related to developing a nuclear warhead, which were detailed in the agency’s November 2011 report.

Iran still is not cooperating fully with that investigation, and its denial of access to the Parchin complex is a missed opportunity to dispel concerns about possible military dimensions to its nuclear program. Those IAEA-Iran discussions should continue and focus on efforts to ensure that any warhead-related work that Iran carried out in have been, or will be halted, and will not occur in the future.

20% Fuel and the TRR

Iran announced last week that it had loaded fuel into the TRR and the agency’s report confirms that, rather than fueling the reactor for operations, it is carrying out testing on fuel assemblies. Iran would need to carry out testing for some time before it could safely make the fuel itself. It would be safer for Iran, and in particular those living in the vicinity of the TRR, to receive fuel from abroad through an arrangement with the P5+1.

Although Iran has now produced about 110 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium, it has dedicated 8 kilograms to make fuel assemblies for the TRR. That material would no longer be part of a ready stockpile of 20% enriched uranium that can be rapidly converted to weapons-grade. Iran would need at least 120 kilograms of 20% material in order to make enough weapons grade uranium for a single weapon. It would want sufficient material for more than just one weapon if it were to decide to produce them.

Continuing the Diplomatic Track

The key parties must now get serious and pursue sustained negotiations aimed at ensuring that Iran meets its nonproliferation obligations. Another P5+1 round with Iran is a good start, but one high-profile meeting will not by itself likely produce a long-term deal that resolves the key issues. A number of proposals have been put forward that provide a good basis for progress.

In the near-term, the P5+1 should focus on arrangements that would end Iran’s enrichment to 20%, which has no real justification and serves as a hedge to rapidly produce nuclear weapons. Reaching such an agreement can help to build confidence on both sides and reduce the risk of a dangerous military confrontation.

Both the U.S. administration and members of Congress have a role to play in increasing the possibility of an agreement and should refrain from any steps that would hinder it and increase the risk of war.

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10 Responses to February 2012 IAEA Report on Iran: An Initial Review

  1. b says:

    “Iran’s enrichment to 20%, which has no real justification..:”

    ´Wait a second. Using radionuclides provided by the TRR to heal cancer is “no real purpose”?

    Wonder how you would feel having cancer and no way to kill it.

    • Daryl G. Kimball says:

      As we write in the post, Iran has other options available to fuel the TRR and produce medical isotopes that do not involve enriching uranium to 20% levels. Iran’s leaders, if interested in the medical benefits, should more energetically pursue those options.

      I would add that I am someone who has had cancer and has benefited from medical isotope treatment and, at the same time, I have seen friends and neighbors suffer as a result of nuclear weapons production activities. There are ways Iran can address the proliferation risks posed by enrichment programs in countries that have not fulfilled their safeguards commitments and also ensure that medical isotopes are available to help cancer victims.

      - DK

  2. Muhammad Sahimi says:

    DK is not saying the complete story here, and just repeats his own narrative.

    Iran always said that if the West is willing to supply fuel for the TRR, it would not enrich to 20 percent. A preliminary agreement was reached in October 2009. But, the West rejected Iran’s modest conditions, and the agreement fell apart. Then, Iran, Turkey and Brazil reached an agreement, but the U.S. rejected it. The reason in both cases was simple: The Obama administration was interesting only in ratcheting up its rhetoric and imposed sanctions on Iran. So, it could not take “yes” as an answer.

    If DK really knows another ways for Iran to pursue obtaining fuel for the TRR, he should explain it in full detail. And the fact that he had cancer has no relevance whatsoever to the issue at hand.

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  4. Jay says:

    Mr. Kimball,

    please clarify your assertion regarding the production of medical isotopes by Iran. As far as most experts are concerned, there is no avenue available to Iran for her to produce independent source of medical isotopes – underline independent. The west has proven to be an unreliable partner in this humanitarian regard – similar to the stand the west has taken with regards to another humanitarian issues related to the spare parts of civilian aircraft.

    If you have information that would help Iran produce sufficient supplies of medical isotopes independently, I would be very much interested to learn about it.

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  6. yousaf says:

    The threat of force against Iran is likely one reason they are stockpiling more 20% U than they immediately appear to need.

    Removal of the _threat_ of force is one way to achieve the goals you state. Not only that but as UNSC resolution 487 says, the threat of force is against the UN charter. And a “threat to the peace” can be considered enough to kick of Chapter 7 sanctions against Israel. So force — and the threat of force — is illegal and counterproductive.

    Thus, you should not only advocate for diplomacy but actively oppose the threats of force which undermine your aims of getting Iran to curb 20% enrichment — although Iran is fully entitled to enrich to any level it likes provided it is done under safeguards.

    Here is UNSCR 487:

    http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/un/un487.htm

    • Yousaf:

      We do and have advocated against the threat of military action and have noted that it is “counterproductive and naive” and “completely nuts.” My column from the December issue of Arms Control Today here and from 2006 here are but two examples.

      I also think you are incorrect in saying that Iran’s efforts to enrich to 20% are a response to the threat of military force. Building an underground enrichment facility at Fordow may be, but it Iran is really just interested in nuclear power or medical isotopes, there are other, simpler and less provocative approaches.

      This is one quickie blogpost about the latest IAEA report and not a global statement or analysis about how the Iranian nuclear challenge should and should not be addressed.

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