Note: correction on Fordow centrifuge totals (3pm, Aug. 30)
By Tom Z. Collina and Daryl G. Kimball
The IAEA’s latest quarterly report on Iran, now in circulation, finds that Tehran has installed more machines for uranium enrichment in its Fordow underground facility, but has not started to use them. This means that Iran has not significantly increased its rate of enrichment at this facility since the IAEA’s previous report from May.
Moreover, although Iran has enriched additional uranium to almost 20%–a level that could be more quickly turned into weapons material–Tehran has converted much of this material to reactor fuel. Thus Iran’s available stockpile of 20% enriched uranium (91 kg) is essentially unchanged from May.
Iran is still continuing enrichment at two sites and seeking to increase its stockpile of enriched uranium in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Although, the August IAEA report is another troubling reminder of Iran’s proliferation potential, it is not a “game-changer” in terms of Tehran’s capability to build a nuclear arsenal if it were to decide to do so.
As White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said August 24, “there is still time and space” for diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff. But it is also clear that new and more energetic diplomacy is needed to resolve the most urgent proliferation risks posed by Tehran’s nuclear activities.
Here is our brief summary of key takeaways from the new IAEA report:
New Machines at Fordow
The addition of 1,076 centrifuges at Fordow, located underground near the city of Qom, is a troubling indication of Iran’s intention to increase its uranium enrichment capacity. The May IAEA report said that Tehran had 1,064 centrifuges installed at Unit 2 at Fordow, of which less than 700 were operating. The August report says Unit 2 now has an additional 328 centrifuges since May, which are not yet operating. The August report finds that Fordow’s Unit 1 now has 4 cascades installed, with 174 IR-1 centrifuges each, and a fifth cascade with 52 centrifuges, for a total of 748 new centrifuges, none of which are yet enriching uranium.
Not Enough for a Bomb, Yet
According to the August IAEA report, Iran has produced 189 kg of nearly 20% enriched uranium, which is an addition of 43 kg since the May report. However, almost 98 kg of that amount is in the process of being converted into fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), meaning this material is no longer available for rapid enrichment. Thus Tehran has only 91 kg of 20% enriched material it could quickly enrich to weapons grade. This would not be enough material for one bomb, if Tehran were to further enrich it to bomb-grade.
If and when Tehran does produce enough 20% enriched uranium (about 200 kg) to be converted into weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon, this is only the first step to a nuclear weapon capability. Iran would not likely want to take the dramatic step of breaking out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) until it has enough material for several bombs—a point that it will not likely be able to reach for two years or more. Iran would then need time to produce the nuclear device itself (likely several months), which it has never done before, and then develop and probably explosively test a warhead that could fit on a ballistic missile, which would take still more time.
According to the August IAEA report, Iran also has 6,876 kg of 3.5% enriched uranium (679 kg more than the May report). This material, if further enriched, could be used to make several nuclear devices, but would take more time compared to using the stock of 20% material. Most analysts assume that if Tehran were to decide to “break out” and race to build a bomb, it would try to do so by using its still small stock of 20% enriched uranium.
Iran has been testing its second-generation centrifuge models for several years, but the August 21, 2012 IAEA report confirms that those machines are still not ready for full-scale use. Other reports and assessments suggest that Iran’s ability to mass-produce these more advanced centrifuges is also uncertain and, because of international sanctions, appears to be having difficulty acquiring the strategic materials to do so.
After unveiling a third-generation centrifuge in 2010 and a fourth more recently, the IAEA report notes that Iran is still experimenting with 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 Iran is ready to use these additional models.
Investigating Iran’s Warhead Work
The IAEA and Iran are still discussing a way forward—through a “structured approach”—for the agency to investigate suspicions that Iran carried out work related to developing a nuclear warhead, which were detailed in the IAEA’s November 2011 report on Iran.
As has been widely and previously reported, the IAEA finds that Iran still is not cooperating fully with that investigation and says that its denial of access to the Parchin complex is a missed opportunity to dispel concerns about possible military dimensions to its nuclear program.
The August report finds that Iran is still building a heavy water reactor at Arak. In addition to its demand that Iran suspend enrichment activities as a confidence building measure, the UN Security Council has also demanded that Iran halt work on the project. Heavy water reactors produce spent fuel that is more suitable for extracting plutonium for weapons than light water reactors. The IAEA report notes that a recent inspection found that cooling and moderator circuit piping is being installed at the site, and Iran says the reactor would operate beginning in the third quarter of 2013.
Resolving the Impasse and Addressing Proliferation Concerns
There is time for a diplomatic solution, but the time available should not be wasted.
It is in the interest of all the key parties to jumpstart the now stalled P5+1 negotiations aimed at ensuring that Iran meets its nonproliferation obligations and halts its most proliferation-sensitive activities.
Another round of P5+1 talks with Iran is a good start, but another high-profile meeting that simply reiterates previous negotiating points will not 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. Renewed and ongoing talks are essential. New and more creative approaches can and should be considered.
In the near-term, the both side should evaluate options that would end Iran’s enrichment to 20% and/or lead to a zero-stockpile of 20% enriched material in exchange for fuel supplies for the Tehran Research Reactor for the purpose of medical isotope production. Reaching such an agreement can help to build confidence on both sides and reduce the risk of a dangerous and counterproductive military confrontation.
As the latest IAEA report clearly documents, it is also essential that Iran follows though on the tentative deal with the Agency on a “structured approach” to for inspections of key sites and personnel to ensure that any weapons-related experiments have been discontinued. (For a detailed analysis of the “structured approach” proposal and the differences between the IAEA and Tehran, see: “The IAEA Outlines the Path for Iran to Come Clean, But Is Tehran Ready?” ACA Issue Brief, March 7, 2012.)
Iran has made it clear time and again that it will not compromise its so-called right to enrich uranium. But under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the right to pursue peaceful nuclear activities comes with responsibilities, specifically the responsibility of NPT nonnuclear weapon states parties–like Iran–to comply with IAEA safeguards and address concerns about past nuclear weapons-related experiments.
By providing greater cooperation with the IAEA, along with other confidence building steps, Iran’s supreme leader could help demonstrate that his religious fatwa against nuclear weapons is genuine and begin to resolve the long-running crisis over Tehran’s nuclear pursuits.