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Update on Iran’s Nuclear Program

By Blaise Misztal

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The latest report by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), released on August 28, makes clear two things: credible red lines are effective; and precision is important in formulating those red lines. Over the last year, Iran has been deliberately slowing down parts of their nuclear program—specifically their accumulation of 20% enriched uranium—to avoid stating a very clearly drawn, and apparently credible in the eyes of Iran’s leadership, Israeli red line. At the same time, however, Iran has found ways to speed up other elements of its nuclear program without crossing any red lines, while still drawing closer to nuclear weapons capability.

Nearly a year ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared before the United Nations General Assembly, “the red line should be drawn right here…before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment.” He then defined the second stage as the production of enough medium (i.e. 20%) enriched uranium for a nuclear device. Since that time, Iran has been systematically reducing its stockpile of that substance. This latest IAEA report shows this trend continuing. Almost every kilogram of 20% enriched uranium Iran produced over the last three months was removed for conversion into fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor. This move suggests that Iran takes Netanyahu’s red line, and the threat that stands behind it, seriously and is trying to stop itself from accumulating enough 20% enriched uranium – roughly 155 kilograms – to produce, with further enrichment, enough fissile material for a nuclear device. In fact, without these draw downs Iran would have crossed that threshold in November 2012. Instead, it has now pushed backed that date by at least a year, into November 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 over 1,800 centrifuges to Natanz, more than double what it had installed in the previous quarter. More disturbingly, Iran continues to install advanced centrifuges, known as the IR-2m model, at Natanz. These machines could prove twice as effective, or more, at enriching uranium than the current IR-1 model. The IAEA report shows that Iran has already fully installed 1,008 of these new machines, and is in the process of installing another 2,000.

While the United States and its international partners prepare to test whether the newly-elected Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, will prove more willing to negotiate than his predecessor, Iran is poised on the threshold of undetectability: the capability to produce enough highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear device faster than the IAEA would be able to detect it and the United States able to respond.

For this reason, the continued pressure of a triple-track strategy that includes diplomacy, sanctions and credible and visible preparations of a military option, which was recommended by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Iran Task Force, co-chaired by Senator Charles Robb and General (ret.) Charles Wald, remains necessary. Bipartisan legislation recently passed by the House of Representatives would tighten sanctions against Iran and put in place a mechanism for assessing Iran’s nuclear progress. This is an important step towards preventing a nuclear weapons capable Iran.

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.1

– Between May 2013 and August 2013, Iran produced an average of 156 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 4,579 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 continues apace.

– Combined (Fordow + Natanz) 20% enriched production rate: 10.1 kg/month;

  • 2012 average: 8.8 kg/month
  • 2011 average: 2.6 kg/month

Iran Draws Down 20% Enriched Uranium Stockpile

Iran removes 30 kg 20% enriched uranium for processing into reactor fuel.

– Fifth time in last year Iran has done this, for total of 125 kg removed:

  • May 2012: 30 kg removed;
  • Nov. 2012: 36 kg removed;
  • Feb. 2013: 10.2 kg removed.
  • May 2013: 18.8 kg removed.
  • August 2013: 30 kg removed.

– Iran has produced 251.8 kg of 20% enriched uranium.
– But only 126.7 kg remain in its stockpile.
– 155 kg of 20% enriched uranium is minimum needed, with further enrichment, for a nuclear weapon and is also believed to constitute Israel’s red line.

Expansion of Enrichment Facilities

Expansion of Natanz continues at fastest pace ever.
– Number of operating centrifuges increases to 9,156;
– 15,416 IR-1 centrifuges installed;
– Up from 13,555 in May 2013;
– Installing average of 600 centrifuges per month;
– Preparatory work for additional 6,000 centrifuges already completed.

Iran begins installing next generation centrifuges at Natanz.
– 1,008 IR-2m centrifuges have been fully installed;
– Preparatory work for additional 2,000 centrifuges already completed;
– IR-2m centrifuges likely to be at least twice as productive as the IR-1 model.
– Iran is also experimenting with even more advanced IR-4, IR-6, and IR-5 centrifuge models at its R&D facility.

Fordow facility almost completed.
– Number of operating centrifuges steady at 696;
– Another 2,014 centrifuges installed, 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 7.0 kg of 20% enriched per month;
– Once operational, remaing 2,014 centrifuges could produce additional 21 kg of 20% enriched per month;
– Total 20% enriched production (fully-operational Fordow + Natanz) could reach: 31 kg/month.

Iranian Defiance Continues

  • Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium defies five United Nations Security Council resolutions.
  • Iran’s construction of the Arak heavy water reactor has slowed but not been suspended as required by IAEA and UNSC resolutions.
  • Iran continues to deny IAEA inspectors access to suspected explosives testing site at Parchin, which has now been leveled and paved over.

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 19 and 101 days.2

– In November 2012, that range was between 28 and 103 days.
– In November 2011, that range was between 60 and 180 days.

If Iran were to bring online all currently installed IR-1 centrifuges, that window would fall to between 13 and 60 days.

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 above, click here.

For larger versions of the tables below, click here.


1 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.
2 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.

2013-09-05 00:00:00
Iran has found ways to speed up its nuclear program without crossing any red lines, drawing closer to nuclear weapons capability