Getting Ever Closer

Iran’s Nuclear Program Keeps on Coming

By Dr. Richard Weitz

Natanz Uranium Enrichment Site (Credit: http://publicintelligence.net/iran-nuclear-site-natanz-uranium-enrichment-site/)Photo Credit: Natanz Uranium Enrichment Site,  http://publicintelligence.net

03/10/2011 – According to the latest information of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other studies, Iran’s nuclear program continues to make progress despite international sanctions, cyber attacks, and other impediments. Iran will soon be in the position to develop nuclear weapons should its leaders decide to pursue them.

A country normally needs to complete three steps to have nuclear weapons. The most difficult obstacle is producing sufficient weapons-grade fissile material — normally highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium — to fuel the explosion. Then the nuclear weapons aspirant must be able to design and physically assemble nuclear explosive devices from this material. Finally, the country must acquire a means to deliver the weapon to a target—normally by designing and building a small nuclear warhead that can be carried by a ballistic missile.

Iranian leaders deny that they seek nuclear weapons, claiming it is prohibited by their religion as well as Iran’s accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They justify their expanding domestic nuclear program by professing a need to develop a civilian nuclear energy capacity that would allow them to earn export revenue from oil and gas that Iranians would otherwise consume themselves.

Iranian leaders also describe having nuclear technology for non-military purposes as their legal right and as a natural development for a proud country like theirs with a sophisticated scientific and technological base. They pledge to make any civilian nuclear program safe, secure, and under international safeguards.

Nonetheless, the IAEA became sufficiently alarmed by Iran’s nuclear activities, and non-cooperative responses to agency requests for additional data regarding them, that the agency requested a few years ago that the UN Security Council intervene on its behalf. The Council has passed numerous resolutions some with sanctions, obliging the Iranian government cease its sensitive nuclear activities — such as enriching uranium — that could be used to make nuclear weapons until the IAEA has become convinced that Iran’s nuclear activities have no military purpose.

According to the latest IAEA quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program, dated February 25, the country continues to enrich increasing quantities of low-enriched uranium (LEU) at its Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant and to construct a IR-40 heavy water nuclear research reactor at Arak despite several UN Security Council resolutions instructing Tehran to halt such activities. Iran has already manufactured sufficient LEU, about 4,000 kilograms, to make a nuclear weapon or two if the LEU were enriched further to weapons-grade HEU.

According to the latest IAEA quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program, dated February 25, the country continues to enrich increasing quantities of low-enriched uranium (LEU) at its Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant and to construct a IR-40 heavy water nuclear research reactor at Arak despite several UN Security Council resolutions instructing Tehran to halt such activities. Iran has already manufactured sufficient LEU, about 4,000 kilograms, to make a nuclear weapon or two if the LEU were enriched further to weapons-grade HEU.

Despite various technical setbacks and the recent Stuxnet virus, IAEA inspectors found that Iran is increasing the number of centrifuges operating at Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP). Since Iran started enrichment operations in February 2007, the country’s first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, based on Pakistan’s P-1 centrifuges acquired through A.Q. Khan’s illicit procurement network, the volume of low-enriched uranium (uranium whose proportion of the fissile isotope Uranium-235 has been artificially raised to 3.5%) produced at the FEP has steadily increased. While the number of IR-1 centrifuges in operation in 2010 decreased as compared with 2009, the IAEA reports that Iran’s total enrichment capacity increased. Indeed, the increase in enrichment capacity from 2009 to 2010 is greater than from 2008 to 2009.

Iran is also developing and testing several new and presumably more efficient centrifuge models at its testing facility, the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP). The February 2011 IAEA report indicates that Iranians intend to begin deploying two of these next-generation centrifuges, the IR-4 and IR-2m, soon at FEP. Since they operate more efficiently and require less physical space, these centrifuges can more easily be used at clandestine sites. They might also more easily be able to produce HEU than the problematic IR-1.

The PFEP is also producing uranium fuel enriched to 20% Uranium 235 for use as fuel in Tehran research reactor (TRR), which has almost exhausted its original fuel supply. Iran and foreign partners tried to negotiate a uranium swap agreement whereby Iran would surrender large quantities of its 3.5% LEU in exchange for foreign fuel rods containing the 20% LEU. After these negotiations failed, Iran decided to try to produce the 20% LEU fuel rods itself. The agency carried out an on-site inspection of the TRR on February 6 and found no improper activities at the site. Still, being able to manufacture 20% U-235 makes it easier for Iran to make weapons-grade uranium, which is normally enriched to 90%.

Despite Security Council resolutions requiring Iran to cooperate with the IAEA about provide the agency with the information required for the IAEA to confirm the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, Iran has ignored many agency requests to provide important information.

For example, Iran refuses to provide the agency with further information regarding its possible possession of laser enrichment technology or third-generation centrifuges. Tehran has also declined IAEA requests for access to other nuclear sites, such as where Iranians research and develop their enrichment technologies and manufacture their centrifuges.

Furthermore, Iran refuses to give the agency information about the history of the Fordow Enrichment Site near Qom, which Iran kept secret from the IAEA until September 2009, when Western governments were about to announce its detection. Finally, Iran has not provided the agency with the requested details about Iranian announcements that it plans to construct ten additional uranium enrichment facilities. “As a result” of all these denials, the IAEA report notes that, “the Agency’s knowledge about Iran’s enrichment activities to diminish.”

Iran also refuses to provide the IAEA with design information about many of its heavy water projects, including the 40-megawatt heavy water moderated research reactor under construction in western Iran at Arak. Iranians insist they will use this IR-40 Reactor, which is under IAEA safeguard, only to produce isotopes for medical care and agriculture, but the reactor is similar in size and type to the reactors used by India, Israel, and Pakistan to make plutonium for fissile material in nuclear weapons. Along with highly enriched uranium, plutonium is a prime fissile material for manufacturing nuclear weapons. Still, Arak will take at least several more years to complete. Although Iran told the IAEA it plans for Arak to enter into service in late 2003, Iranians are encountering difficulties obtaining through its clandestine sanctions-busting nuclear procurement activities some of the technologies and materials, such as large metal components, it needs to complete the Arak facility. Iran also lacks a reprocessing capability that would allow Tehran to convert the separated plutonium into weapons-grade material.

The latest IAEA report indicates that Tehran is still not providing the agency with the information it needs to confirm that all Iran’s past and current nuclear activities were for exclusively peaceful purposes. For the last few years, the IAEA has sought to clarify the accuracy of information acquired through its own efforts as well as supplied by Western intelligence agencies that Iranians earlier conducted “alleged studies” regarding the military application of nuclear technologies. The subjects of these studies purportedly included how to make a nuclear warhead and a reentry vehicle capable of delivery on based on a Nagasaki implosion bomb that could be launched on a long-range ballistic missile.

Iranian officials either characterized some activities as military “studies” involving non-nuclear materials whose substance could not be revealed because they concerned Iran’s national security, or dismissed the documents altogether as forgeries. They have repeatedly denied IAEA requests for access to essential data, sites, and individuals that might clarify these activities.

In February 2010, the IAEA for the first time acknowledged that it had evidence of undisclosed Iranian activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile. The media reports that the IAEA recently acquired new information about past or current undisclosed activities related to the military application of nuclear technologies. All IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano will say in public is that, “We don’t have a smoking gun; we have concerns.”

Iran’s controversial LEU-power nuclear power reactor at Bushehr, under construction for some 30 years, continues to suffer from further setbacks that repeatedly delay when it will start producing civilian nuclear power. The latest problem occurred in February and March 2011, when fears that metal from a defective cooling pump were contaminating the reactor’s Russian-supplied uranium fuel rods led its operators to remove some of the assemblies from the reactor’s core.

The more recent incident has heightened concerns about the safety of the plant, which has been built intermittently by several different foreign companies whose technologies and techniques do not always harmonize. Iran has also declined to sign the Nuclear Safety Convention and other international nuclear agreements.

The Bushehr reactor is not considered an immediate proliferation risk. Iran has placed the reactor on extensive IAEA safeguards, which allows agency inspectors to monitor the facility’s operations through remotely controlled measuring sensors and closed-circuit cameras. IAEA experts can also conduct on-site inspections at the plants. Its spent fuel cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium without further reprocessing. In return for completing the plant, Russian negotiators adamantly insisted that Iran had to use Russian-made fuel for the reactor, rather than make its own, and return the used fuel rods to Russia rather than retain then. Such “spent” fuel contains plutonium, which technicians can separate and use to manufacture nuclear weapons. At present, Iranians lacks the reprocessing technologies or training to separate the spent fuel into weapons-grade plutonium even if they tried.

Iranian scientists and technicians are undoubtedly learning knowledge and skills that assist them to conduct their own nuclear fuel program. The Iranian government justified its pursuit of an indigenous fuel-manufacturing capacity by citing its need to manufacture uranium fuel for Bushehr and the dozens of additional civilian nuclear plants Iran aims to build.

Iranian scientists and technicians are undoubtedly learning knowledge and skills that assist them to conduct their own nuclear fuel program. The Iranian government justified its pursuit of an indigenous fuel-manufacturing capacity by citing its need to manufacture uranium fuel for Bushehr and the dozens of additional civilian nuclear plants Iran aims to build.

In December 2010, the Iranian government declared that it plans to build at least ten additional uranium enrichment facilities at various locations. Iran does not presently have sufficient natural uranium or centrifuges for so many new plants, but it could build a few more in secret. Iran is the only state to contest the view that its IAEA Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement requires early notification of design information for, among other things, its new enrichment facilities.

The IAEA expects to be informed whenever Iran decides to construct a new nuclear facility and to receive additional design information as the project develops. In contrast, the position of the Iranian government is that nuclear facilities need not be disclosed to the IAEA until construction is almost completed, which effectively presents the agency with a fait accompli. In practice, Iran has only reported new facilities to the agency after they have been discovered by other parties. That happened with the gas uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz in 2003 and at the Fordow Enrichment Site near Qom in September 2009.

Like previous reports, the latest one indicates that the IAEA has no evidence of significant diversions of nuclear materials or technologies from Iran’s 16 safeguarded nuclear facilities.

Nonetheless, the agency cannot exclude that Iran is pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program using undeclared materials and facilities since the Iranian government is not allowing agency monitors access to non-safeguarded sites. If Iranians seek to build a nuclear weapon, they will do so not at Natanz, Bushehr, or at other declared facilities under IAEA supervision. Instead, they will design and build an atomic bomb at some clandestine facility such as the one exposed at Qom. That enrichment complex is remote and deeply buried, shielding it from foreign surveillance satellites and possible air strikes.

Estimates regarding how soon Iran could acquire nuclear weapons vary from one to five years. The divergent assessments reflect several objective and subjective factors. In terms of fissile material, Iran already has enough LEU that, if further enriched to weapons-grade HEU, could be used to make at least two nuclear explosive devices. The same centrifuges that produce low-enriched uranium for reactors can make highly-enriched uranium for a bomb. In addition, the heavy water reactor under construction at Arak would give Iran the technical capability to produce weapons-grade plutonium directly, though the anticipated date for the Arak reactor to begin operating keeps on receding. Therefore, the question of intent aside, Iran certainly is acquiring the technical capability to produce a nuclear weapon.

Converting the LEU to HEU and fashioning it into a nuclear explosive device or two could perhaps take one to two years depending on which production method Iran might pursue. The potentially faster batch enrichment process would entail more risk than the four-stage method traditionally favored by the A Q Khan network. The two other barriers to Iran’s acquisition of a working nuclear arsenal—the development of a nuclear bomb and warhead sufficiently small and a ballistic missile sufficiently reliable to deliver a warhead from Iran to a distant target—likely would not present major technical impediments since Iran has already demonstrated an ability to launch a satellite into outer space.

Many analysts believe Iranian leaders would prefer that their country become a virtual nuclear power, i.e. having the capacity to rapidly deploy nuclear weapons when their leaders decide on such a course. Tehran might prudently want to detonate a device to confirm its validity, and having a single warhead is not really a deterrent; if anything, it is an invitation for pre-emption. Before making its nuclear capacity undeniably public through a nuclear weapons test, Iran would probably want to have a few additional nuclear weapons to guard against technical failure, including of the initial test, or a pre-emptive attack.

Tehran might prudently want to detonate a device to confirm its validity, and having a single warhead is not really a deterrent; if anything, it is an invitation for pre-emption.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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