The latest report by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), released on February 21, is remarkable for the seemingly contradictory developments it shows: Iran appears to be both slowing down and speeding up elements of its nuclear program.
On the one hand, Iran has removed 10 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium from its stockpile to produce fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor. This move, the third such in the last year, suggests that Iran is trying to decelerate its nuclear program, specifically by pushing back the date when it accumulates enough 20% enriched uranium – 155 kilograms – to produce, with further enrichment, sufficient highly enriched uranium for a nuclear device. This threshold happens to coincide with the red line set by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year, implicitly threatening military action were Iran to cross it. This latest draw down pushes back the date when Iran will amass 155 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium by roughly a month, into late June 2013, assuming it remains on its current trajectory and does not further deplete its stockpile.
On the other hand, Iran appears to be trying to speed up its nuclear work by expanding the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant with additional centrifuges, including next generation models. In the last three months Iran has added 2,255 centrifuges to Natanz. Once it begins operating these, it could increase its production of 3.5% enriched uranium by 25%. More disturbingly, Iran has also notified the IAEA that it plans to install nearly 3,000 advanced centrifuges, known as the IR-2m model. These machines could prove twice as effective, or more, at enriching uranium than the current IR-1 model. The IAEA report shows that 180 of these new machines are already installed at Natanz. Once all 3,000 are installed and operational, the production capacity of the Natanz plant will be boosted an additional 75%. In practice, all these new centrifuges could reduce by 47% the time Iran needs to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.
These seemingly contradictory tactics actually represent a coherent strategy: as Iran heads into the next round of negotiations with the United States and other powers on February 26, it is shrewdly seeking to evade international pressure while hastening its advance to nuclear weapons capability. More on this strategy can be found here. In response, the United States should adhere to the principles for negotiating with Iran laid out by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Iran Task Force, co-chaired by Senator Charles Robb and General (ret.) Charles Wald, and pursue the triple-track strategy of diplomacy, sanctions and credible and visible preparations of the military option that the task force has consistently called for in five reports over the last five years.
Additional details and highlights from the IAEA report include:
Enrichment Rate and Output Remains at All-Time High
Production of 3.5% enriched uranium remains at all time high level, triple pre-Stuxnet rate.*
- Between Nov. 2012 and Feb. 2013, Iran produced average of 158 kg/month.
- Effectively same rate for the last year;
- Fastest previous rate (Feb. 2012): 115 kg/month;
- 2010 average: 83 kg/month;
- 2009 average: 56 kg/month.
- Known 3.5% enriched uranium stockpile reaches 4,038 kg; at current enrichment level can fuel nuclear reactor. Enough, when enriched to 90%, for at least two nuclear weapons.
Production rate of 20% enriched uranium fastest ever.
- Combined (Fordow + Natanz) 20% enriched production rate: 10.5 kg/month;
- Fastest previous rate (Nov. 2012): 10.2 kg/month;
- 2012 average: 8.8 kg/month
- 2011 average: 2.6 kg/month
Iran Draws Down 20% Enriched Uranium Stockpile
Iran removes 10.2 kg 20% enriched uranium for processing into reactor fuel.
- Third time in last year Iran has done this, for total of 76 kg removed:
- May 2012: 30 kg removed;
- Nov. 2012: 36 kg removed;
- Feb. 2013: 10.2 kg removed.
- Iran has produced 189.3 kg of 20% enriched uranium.
- But only 112.9 kg remain in its stockpile.
Expansion of Enrichment Facilities
Number of centrifuges operating at Natanz dips slightly.
- 8,692 centrifuges operating;
- Down from 9,156 centrifuges operating in November 2012.
But highest number of installed centrifuges at Natanz ever, more planned.
- 12,669 IR-1 centrifuges installed;
- Previous high was 10,414 centrifuges in November 2012;
- Preparatory work for additional 10,988 centrifuges begun.
Iran begins installing next generation centrifuges at Natanz.
- Iran informed IAEA that it plans to install 2,952 IR-2m centrifuges at Natanz.
- Already 180 IR-2m centrifuges and casings have been installed.
- IR-2m centrifuges are designed to twice as productive as the currently deployed IR-1 model.
Fordow facility completed.
- Number of operating centrifuges steady at 696;
- But all remaining 2,088 centrifuges installed:
- Of these 1,914 have been tested and prepared for enrichment, could become operational imminently.
Production of 20% enriched uranium could triple when Fordow fully-operational.
- Currently, 696 centrifuges at Fordow produce 7.7 kg of 20% enriched per month;
- Additional 2,088 centrifuges at Fordow are triple what is currently operating;
- Once operational, they could produce additional 23.1 kg of 20% enriched per month;
- Total 20% enriched production (fully-operational Fordow + Natanz) could reach: 33.5 kg/month.
Iranian Defiance Continues
Iran continues to deny IAEA inspectors access to suspected explosives testing site at Parchin.
Effect on Timing
With only minor changes to Iran’s production rate of 3.5% enriched uranium and 20% enriched uranium stockpile compared to the previous reporting period, the time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon has not changed dramatically. However, the developments detailed by the IAEA suggest the potential for major advances.
Depending on the method used, Iran could produce 20 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, enough for a weapon, in between 23 and 99 days.**
- In November 2012, that range was between 28 and 103 days.
- In November 2011, that range was between 60 and 180 days.
That window could fall to just 8 days by July 2013, when Iran could amass 155 kg of 20% enriched uranium.***
Developments to watch for that could have major impact on timing:
- Operationalization of additional centrifuges at Fordow plant;
- Operationalization of additional centrifuges at Natanz plant;
- Installation and operationalization of IR-2m centrifuges at Natanz.
For a larger version of the chart below, click here.
For larger versions of the tables below, click here.
* For enrichment, uranium must be in gas form as uranium hexafluoride (UF6). The IAEA reports its data in kilograms of UF6. However, for this paper, we will refer to solid form uranium. One kilogram of UF6 yields roughly 0.67kg uranium metal.
** This range depends on whether Iran uses a two- or three-step batch recycling process to produce highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon and is based upon the work of Greg Jones at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Both scenarios assume the use of the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant at its current production rate and drawing upon Iran’s current stockpiles of 3.5% and 20% enriched uranium. For a more detailed explanation, see here.
*** If Iran continues to produce 20% enriched uranium at its current rate, by May 2013 it will have stockpiled 155kg, the minimum needed to produce HEU for a nuclear weapon.