By Kelsey Davenport, Daryl G. Kimball, and Greg Thielmann
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) May 2013 quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program indicates that Tehran is continuing to move forward on its nuclear program, installing more advanced centrifuges and building-up its stockpiles of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent and 20 percent, and moving forward on construction of its heavy water reactor at Arak.
The report findings underscore the urgent need to intensify negotiations with Tehran to resolve the political questions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and to resolve the outstanding questions regarding the potential military dimensions of the program, but, at the same time, the findings reinforce earlier assessments that Iran remains years away from obtaining a deliverable nuclear arsenal.
- Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, now at 182 kilograms, remains below the estimated 240-250 kilograms which, when further enriched to weapons grade, would be enough for one nuclear weapon.
- While Iran has now installed 689 advanced (IR-2M) centrifuges at Natanz, these centrifuges are not yet producing enriched uranium.
- The number of centrifuges enriching uranium to 20 percent at Fordow remains constant at 696.
- No progress has been made in negotiations between Iran and the IAEA on the scope and sequence of the agency’s investigation into Iran’s nuclear activities with possible military dimensions.
20 Percent Stockpile Still Short of a Bomb’s Worth
According to the May 2013 report, Iran has produced 324 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent at its Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities. Only 182 kilograms remain in the stockpile as uranium hexafluoride gas, an increase of 15 kilograms since the IAEA’s February 2013 report on Iran.
In total, Iran has produced 324 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium. The other 142 kilograms of 20% percent material has been converted to uranium oxide to make fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. This leaves Iran below the 240-250 kilograms which, when further enriched to weapons grade, (over 90 percent enriched U-235) is enough for one bomb.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a September 2013 speech at the UN General Assembly that accumulating that level of 20 percent enriched materials is a “red-line” that would precipitate an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
In the prior report, from February 2013, the IAEA noted that Iran had produced 280 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, of which 113 kilograms had been slated for conversion into uranium oxide powder.
Uranium oxide can be converted back into uranium hexafluoride form, 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. Iran has the capabilities to reconvert the power to gas form and given the current amount of uranium oxide in the February 2013 report; reconversion could take as little as between 1-2 weeks. However, it would be difficult for Iran to complete the conversion without the IAEA inspectors noticing.
Additionally, Iran is unlikely to break out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) with only one bomb’s worth of uranium enriched to 20 percent. At the current rate of production, it would be several years before Iran has enough 20 percent material for several bombs if it chose to do so. Also, a sufficient quantity of weapons-grade uranium is only component of a nuclear weapon. Iran would still need to build a device and mate the warhead to a delivery vehicle before it would have a working nuclear arsenal. Iran has not demonstrated the capability to do either and it would likely take Iran more time to master these steps.
More Advanced Centrifuges at Natanz
According to the May 2013 report, Iran is continuing to install advanced centrifuges, the IR-2M, at its Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plan. Iran now has 689 IR-2Ms installed, 509 more than was reported in February, but they are not yet producing enriched uranium.
Iran informed the IAEA in January 2013 that it would begin installing the IR-2Ms in February. Iran has said that when running, the IR-2Ms will produce reactor grade uranium, which is enriched to 3.5 percent. Fereydoun Abbasi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said in Tehran on Feb. 13 that Iran is “carrying out the installation” of the new centrifuges and would be “starting them up gradually.” As of the February 2013 report, Iran had installed 180 IR-2 centrifuge casings.
The IR-2M is a second-generation model based on Iran’s original gas centrifuge, the IR-1.While these centrifuges are likely to be more efficient than the IR-1s that Iran using for producing enriched uranium to both 3.5 percent and 20 percent levels, it is unclear how much more efficient they will be because it is unlikely that Iran has been able to produce or procure the highest-grade of materials for the IR-2Ms. Experts assess that a tripling or quadrupling in efficiency might be realistic, but that it is difficult to estimate until the machines are operating in cascades.
In the remaining halls at the Fuel Enrichment Plant, Iran has 13,555 IR-1 centrifuges producing uranium enriched to 3.5 percent. Iran installed 886 of IR-1s since the last report. In total, Iran has a stockpile of 6,357 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent. While Iran has produced more materials enriched to 3.5 percent, some of it has been further enriched to 20 percent. As of the February 2013 report, that number was 5,974 kilograms.
The February report also noted that, for the first time, Iran had installed two new types of centrifuges, the IR-6 and the IR-6S, in the research and development area at Natanz’s Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant and was feeding natural uranium into the single machines, and in the case of the IR-6S, cascades. The new IAEA report says that Iran installed the IR-5 at the Natanz research and development area for the first time.
Fordow Remains Unchanged
According to the May 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. As of the February 2013 IAEA report, an additional 11 cascades had been vacuum tested and are ready to begin enriching uranium. Only 1 cascade remains incomplete.
The May 2013 reports says that Iran is also continuing to make progress on its heavy water reactor at Arak, despite UN Security Council resolutions calling on Tehran to halt construction. The Arak reactor has been a project of concern for many years due to the fact that it could provide a second route by which Iran might produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
The IAEA reports that on March 10, 2013, Iran informed the Agency that it planned to produce 55 fuel assemblies for the Arak reactor by August 2013. Iran says it plans to complete the reactor in 2014 and use it to produce medical isotopes.
In May, 2013 Iran provided “some information regarding the reactor vessel recently received at the IR-40 Reactor site. Nothwithstanding, as reiterated by the Agency in a letter to Iran dated 8 May 2013, an updated DIQ for the IR-40 Reactor is urgently required.”
The prior report, from February 2013 noted that on November 26, 2012, the Agency verified a prototype IR-40 natural uranium fuel assembly for Arak before its transfer to the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) for “irradiation testing.” This would be the first time TRR has been used to test fuel for the Arak reactor.
Spent fuel produced by heavy water reactors can be more easily reprocessed to extract plutonium, which can be used to produce nuclear weapons. Independent experts assess that if Arak functions at optimal capacity, it could produce sufficient plutonium to yield 9 kg annually, after separation, enough for approximately 1.5 nuclear weapons.
However, Iran does not have a reprocessing facility for separation, having revised its declaration to the IAEA regarding Arak in 2004. The revision eliminated plans for a reprocessing facility at the site. Tehran maintains that it does not intend to build a plant to separate plutonium from the irradiated fuel that the reactor will produce.
No Progress on IAEA Investigation into PMDs
Iran also continues to refuse to cooperate fully with the IAEA’s investigations into activities with possible military dimensions (PMDs). According to the May 2013 report, the IAEA and Iran have made no progress on negotiating an approach to the agency’s investigations on these activities.
The IAEA’s November 2011 report laid out in detail the information collected by the agency regarding Iran’s alleged past nuclear weapons activities. The May 2013 report does not present any new evidence or information regarding these potential military activities.
Since early 2012, the IAEA and Iran have been discussing a way forward—through a “structured approach”—for the agency to investigate these alleged activities, but have been unable to reach an agreement. The parties met most recently for the 10th time in Istanbul on May 15. After the meeting Deputy Director General Herman Naekarts reported that the IAEA and Iran were unable to finalize the structured approach. No new date to continue negotiations was announced.
While the IAEA has stated it is committed to dialogue it is unclear how long they will keep negotiating with Iran over the structured approach. In a December 2012 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said that talks should not continue “without producing any concrete result.”
In May 15 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman said that the talks between Iran and the IAEA should not continue indefinitely without a result and that at some point Amano will have to tell the Security Council that it must take further action.
Sherman said she was not sure if this would happen at the Board of Governors meeting in June or September. Sherman is the top U.S. representative to the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, an the United States) negotiations with Iran.
Time to Accelerate Progress of P5+1 and Iran Negotiations
Iran has not yet made the decision to pursue nuclear weapons, and if it were to do so, it remains years away from a deliverable arsenal.
Obtaining the necessary amount of fissile material enriched to weapons-grade is only one step. Iran also would have to design a warhead, fashion the uranium hexafluoride gas into the metallic form needed for the warhead, and conduct an explosive test of that design to assure its reliability. To do so, Iran would likely expel IAEA inspectors, which would alert the international community to its true intentions.
Former Secretary of Defense Panetta estimated in 2012 that it would take about a year to produce a bomb and then 1-2 additional years to fit it to a delivery vehicle, similar to the estimate from the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
However, the time available to conclude an interim confidence-building arrangement that halts Iran’s production of 20% uranium and secures more extensive IAEA monitoring, in exchange for the supply of medical isotopes and limited sanctions relief should not be wasted.
The resumption of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in 2013 was a positive step, but both sides need to show more flexibility and pragmatism to achieve a breakthrough. Further rounds of talks should be scheduled soon after Iran’s June election to resolve the long-running standoff.
The revised package that the P5+1 brought to the “Almaty II” negotiations on April 5-6 represents a step in the right direction. It proposed a halt to production of uranium enriched to 20 percent, which remains the primary concern of the United States and the P5+1, as well as offering limited but significant sanctions relief to Iran. The parties should think creatively about how this proposal could be modified and sequenced to build confidence and prevent escalation.