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Update on Iran’s Nuclear Program

By Blaise Misztal

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Summary

  • Iran has complied with interim deal requirements to halt significant portions of its nuclear program, including ceasing production of 20 percent enriched uranium.
  • Despite the interim deal, Iran’s nuclear program has advanced in two important dimensions:
    • Iran has increased production of 3.5 percent enriched uranium; during the interim deal it will have produced over 600kg more of 3.5 percent enriched uranium than were the deal not in place. This constitutes roughly 30 to 50 percent of the amount need to, with further enrichment, produce a nuclear device.
    • Iran has increased the output of some of its operating centrifuges by as much as 25 percent. If it can implement this improvement to all its centrifuges, it will be able to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear device just as quickly now as it was before the interim deal went into effect.
  • Iran has agreed to provide the IAEA information about three areas related to its alleged past research into military nuclear technology. Full disclosure and cooperation on these issues will be critical to addressing outstanding international concerns about Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

Analysis

As the United States and other world powers continue to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicates that Iran is complying with the interim deal, known as the “Joint Plan of Action” (JPA), that went into effect on January 20, 2014. As reports suggest that talks have thus far failed to bridge major gaps between the P5+1 and Iran, it appears increasingly likely that the JPA will be extended another six months beyond its July 20 deadline and that the status quo described in the IAEA report will continue.

That status quo is not entirely a static one. As required by the JPA, Iran has halted significant portions of its nuclear program. Most important, it has stopped producing 20 percent enriched uranium, disconnected the interconnections between centrifuge cascades that enabled enrichment to that level, refrained from installing any additional centrifuges, and halted work on the Arak heavy water reactor. Additionally, Iran has been reducing its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, converting half into reactor fuel and diluting the other half back to 3.5 percent enrichment levels.

The latest report1 also indicates that Iran has started one of the last outstanding points of the JPA. That agreement stated:

Beginning when the line for conversion of UF6 enriched up to 5 percent to UO2 is ready, Iran has decided to convert to oxide UF6 newly enriched up to 5 percent during the 6 month period, as provided in the operational schedule of the conversion plant declared to the IAEA.

But until recently, the plant that oxidizes Iran’s 3.5 percent enriched uranium remained under construction. The IAEA confirmed that the facility, known as the Enriched UO2 Powder Plant (EUPP), has been completed and is ready to begin operation. It remains unclear, however, whether the JPA requires Iran to convert into oxide all 3.5 percent enriched uranium produced during the deal’s six month period or only that produced “beginning when the line for conversion…is ready.”

This is an important point because, despite Iran’s compliance with the JPA, it has made advances in its production of 3.5 percent enriched uranium. Iran did not simply take the centrifuges it was using to produce 20 percent enriched uranium offline. Instead, it is now using them to produce 3.5 percent enriched uranium. The result is that the number of centrifuges enriching to 3.5 percent has jumped by more than 10 percent compared to the pre-JPA period and the rate of production has similarly increased. Already, Iran has produced over 375 kg of 3.5 percent enriched uranium more than it would have without the JPA. Enriching uranium to this level, takes roughly 75 percent of the total time required to turn natural uranium into weapons-grade uranium.

Moreover, the centrifuges now producing 3.5 percent enriched uranium at the underground Fordow facility are doing so almost 20 percent more quickly than their counterparts at Natanz, and recorded rates almost 25 percent higher earlier on this year, even though both are the same model. This is significant because, as we have argued previously, improving the output of its IR-1 centrifuges is one way that Iran can continue to accelerate its breakout timing even while barred, by the JPA, from activating additional or more advanced centrifuges.

Still, Iran continues to experiment with new centrifuge technology. There are currently several different next-generation models being tested or installed at its research and design facility, including the IR-2m models that are installed, but not operational, at Natanz. Even though this activity is explicitly permitted by the JPA, it raises the stakes for reaching a comprehensive agreement before the interim deal lapses. By experimenting with this advanced technology now, Iran is positioning itself to make faster advancements in enrichment capability later.

Indeed, these factors suggest that if the JPA were to be extended for another six months, until January 20, 2015, Iran during this period will stockpile 1,200 kg of 3.5 percent enriched uranium more than it would have without the JPA, almost enough, with further enrichment, for a nuclear weapon. Some of this increase in stockpile could be mitigated by oxidizing it at the newly-opened EUPP but the output of that facility is still unknown. Further, and extension of the JPA could also give Iran time to tinker with and replace its existing centrifuges to improve their performance. This could counteract and negate the reduction to Iran’s breakout timing (the time needed to produce enough fissile grade material for one nuclear device) achieved by the JPA’s elimination of Iran’s 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile.

Another dimension of the IAEA report, however, indicates that extending the JPA and prolonging the P5+1 negotiations with Iran might yield important insights into Iran’s willingness to accept curbs on its nuclear program and open it up to international scrutiny. Parallel to the JPA deal struck by world powers, the IAEA has been conducting its own talks with Iran, with the goal of getting more information about its nuclear work, leading to an agreement known as the Framework for Cooperation (FC). The FC has been through two rounds now, in which Iran has provided the IAEA information on a total of 13 issues related to its nuclear work. Those issues largely relate to current and future expansion of its nuclear program—its stated intention, for example, to build ten more uranium enrichment plants. But, with one exception, they do not include a commitment by Iran to disclose its military research on nuclear weapons. The one exception is the explanation Iran has given the IAEA its work on exploding bridge wire (EBW) detonators that could be used in a nuclear device. “Iran showed information to the Agency,” according to the latest IAEA report, “that simultaneous firing of EBW was tested for a civilian application.”

Even as “the Agency’s assessment of the information provided by Iran is ongoing,” Iran has now committed to providing information on five further issues by August 25, 2014. This time at least two of them relate to Iran’s past military research. Whether the IAEA finds Iran’s EBW explanations convincing and whether Iran provides full disclosure on the latest two military-related issues will be a good metric for how serious Iran is about curtailing its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability overall. Given that Iran continues to deny the IAEA access to a major facility tied to the nuclear program, the Parchin military base, while working to sanitize the site, there is reason to believe it will be less than forthcoming to the IAEA on other matters as well. Furthermore, the slow drip with which Iran is addressing military-related issues could well suggest an attempt simply to play for time.

To give negotiators working towards a comprehensive agreement with Iran the best chance of success, the United States should adopt a triple-track strategy that combines diplomacy with increased sanctions and credible and visible preparations of the military option, as laid out by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Iran Task Force. Indeed, if diplomacy is to succeed, the growing disagreement between the White House and Capitol Hill about how to negotiate and what to demand from Iran needs to be addressed. BPC has released a proposed framework for such improved executive-legislative cooperation.

Additional details and highlights from the IAEA report include:

Production of 20 Percent Enriched Uranium Ceases, Reduction of Stockpile Almost Complete…

  • Per JPA, enrichment to 20 percent halted at Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant and Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant.
    • Centrifuge cascades used to enrich to 20 percent at each site disconnected;
    • IAEA installed additional safeguards to monitor that they remain disconnected.
  • Total 20 percent enriched uranium produced since production began (Feb. 2010): 302.7kg.
  • Actual stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium as of May. 2014: 26kg.
    • JPA specifies that Iran must eliminate its entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium.
      • Half to be turned into reactor fuel;
      • Half to be downblended to 3.5 percent enrichment level.
    • Total of 205kg removed for oxidization (production of reactor fuel):
      • 144.3kg prior to Nov. 2013;
      • 60.7kg since Nov. 2013.
    • 71.8kg downblended to 3.5 percent since Nov. 2013.

..But Production of 3.5 Percent Enriched Uranium Jumps

  • On Jan. 20, facilities enriched to 20 Percent switched over to making 3.5 percent enriched uranium.
    • There are now 3 facilities enriching to 3.5 percent:
      • Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant;
      • Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (previously producing 20 percent enriched uranium);
      • Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (previously producing 20 percent enriched uranium).
  • Total production rate jumps up nearly 10 percent above pre-JPA levels: 168.3kg/month.
    • But rate has dropped from Feb. 2014 when it was at record high of 177.8kg/month.
    • Natanz production rate of 3.5 percent increases down slightly to 149kg/month.
      • Previous reporting period: 157kg/month.
      • Highest recorded rate: 161kg/month (Nov 2012).
    • Natanz PFEP production rate of 3.5 percent up to 5.2kg/month.
      • Previous reporting period: 4.2kg/month.
    • Fordow 3.5 percent production rate of 3.5 percent down slightly to 13.4kg/month.
      • Previous reporting period: 16.3kg/month.

  • Total 3.5 percent enriched uranium produced since production began (Feb 2007): 8,010kg.
    • 585kg produced since last reporting period:
      • 457kg at Natanz;
      • 15kg at Natanz PFEP;
      • 61kg at Fordow.
  • Actual stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium as of May 2014: 5,730kg.
    • 2,360kg used for enrichment to 20 percent.

  • The stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium will grow faster under JPA than it would have without the deal.
    • Between Jan. 20 and July 20, 2014, the duration of the JPA, Iran will produce 597kg more of 3.5 percent enriched uranium more than it would have without the JPA.
    • If the JPA is extended for another six months, to Jan. 20, 2015, Iran will produce 1,194kg more of 3.5 percent enriched uranium more than it would have without the JPA.

Iran Squeezes More out of IR-1 Centrifuges, Continues Researching New Models

  • Per JPA, number and type of centrifuges largely unchanged at all enrichment facilities.
    • Natanz FEP:
      • 16,428 total centrifuges installed (unchanged):
        • 15,420 IR-1 centrifuges;
        • 1,008 IR-2m.
      • 9,180 IR-1 centrifuges operating:
        • Same as previous reporting period.
        • Equal to number operating in early 2013/late 2012.
        • All operating centrifuges are IR-1 model.
      • “Preparatory installation work” completed for more centrifuges:
        • 2,016 IR-2m centrifuges;
        • 6,050 IR-1 centrifuges;
        • But no further work undertaken since JPA implementation.
      • Output of operating centrifuges drops slightly to .71 SWU/machine/year.
        • Previous reporting period: .75 SWU/machine/year.
    • Natanz PFEP:
      • 328 IR-1 centrifuges installed and operating (unchanged).
      • Output of centrifuges producing 3.5 percent: .7 SWU/machine/year.
        • Previous reporting period: .56 SWU/machine/year.
  • Fordow FEP:
    • 2,710 IR-1 centrifuges installed (unchanged).
      • Facility accommodates 2,976 centrifuges.
    • 696 IR-1 centrifuges operating (unchanged).
    • Output of centrifuges producing 3.5 percent: .84 SWU/machine/year.
      • Previous reporting period: 1.02 SWU/machine/year.
      • Still 18 percent faster than currently achieved at Natanz;
      • Suggests Iran capable of continuing to accelerate breakout timing, even while adhering to JPA.

  • Research and development of advanced centrifuges continues.
    • Iran experimenting with:
      • 172 IR-2m centrifuges;
      • 178 IR-4 centrifuges;
      • 1 IR-5 centrifuge;
      • 9 IR-6 centrifuges.

Fuel Conversion and Fabrication

  • Facility for conversion of 3.5 percent uranium hexafluoride into uranium oxide finally completed.
    • Iran required to oxidize 3.5 percent enriched uranium produced during JPA period.
    • Facility has been tested, but oxidization of 3.5 percent enriched uranium has not yet begun.
    • Iran has moved 2,900kg of 3.5 percent enriched uranium to facility.
  • Conversion of 20 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride into uranium oxide and fuel plates for Tehran Research Reactor continues.
    • Total 20 percent enriched uranium fed into conversion process: 205kg.
    • Total 20 percent enriched U3O8 produced: 142.5kg.
      • 40.4kg 20 percent enriched U3O8 produced in waste.
      • Means that about another 22.1kg 20 percent enriched U3O8 are still being processed.
    • Total of 26 fuel assemblies for TRR have been produced.
      • Of these, 20 transferred to TRR.
      • Represents about a decade worth of fuel for TRR.
  • IAEA verifies no reconversion of U3O8 into UF6, a possible sign of breakout, currently ongoing.

Heavy Water Reactor

  • Per JPA, no work has taken place at Arak Heavy Water Reactor since last report.
    • Production of fuel assemblies for Arak has also ceased.
    • But production of heavy water for use at Arak (not covered by JPA) continues.

​​Framework for Cooperation

  • Iran upheld its commitment under the second round of the November 2013 Framework for Cooperation:
    • Provided information and managed access to the Saghand mine in Yazd;
    • Provided information and managed access to the Ardakan concentration plant;
    • Submitted an updated Design Information Questionnaire (DIQ) for the IR-40 Reactor;
    • Agreed on Safeguards Approach for the IR-40 Reactor;
    • Provided information and arranged for a technical visit to Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Centre;
    • Provided information on source material that is not used for enrichment or fuel fabrication;
    • Provided information and explanation for Iran’s experimentation with Exploding Bridge Wire (EBW) detonators.
  • The IAEA is still evaluating some of these disclosures, particularly those related to the civilian justifications for EBW experimentation.
  • Iran and IAEA agreed to undertake five more “practical measures,” two of which deals with repeatedly voiced IAEA concerns about past military research:
    • Information with the Agency with respect to the allegations related to the initiation of high explosives, including the conduct of large scale high explosives experimentation in Iran;
    • Information related to studies made and/or papers published in Iran in relation to research into compressed materials;
    • Information and arranging for a technical visit to a centrifuge research and development center;
    • Information and managed access to centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production workshops and storage facilities;
    • Concluding the safeguards approach for the IR-40 reactor.

Military Dimensions

  • IAEA reiterates that few of its concerns about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program have been addressed.
  • IAEA most concerned about experiments conducted at Parchin and involvement of foreign scientist.
    • Report notes that, since last report, “the Agency has observed through satellite imagery, building materials, debris and earth deposits, as well as ongoing construction activities that appear to show the removal/replacement or refurbishment of the external wall structures of the site’s two main buildings” at Parchin.

Effect on Timing

Two main variables will determine how much time Iran would need to produce 20 kilograms of 90 percent enriched uranium—the minimum needed for a nuclear weapon—in the near future: its available stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium; and the rate at which its centrifuges are able to enrich uranium. The first is expected to decline to zero as a result of the JPA, increasing breakout timing. But the latest IAEA report shows that the second might be increasing, bringing the timing back down

  • Depending on whether Iran uses just its all of its installed centrifuges or just the currently operating ones, Iran could produce 20 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, enough for a weapon, in between 47 and 82 days.2
  • This result is in line with Obama Administration estimates that the JPA would add a month to Iran’s breakout timing.
    • In November 2013, prior to the implementation of JPA, that range was 31 to 59 days.
  • But continued improvements to Iran’s centrifuges could negate that delay, despite the elimination of Iran’s 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile.
    • Time to produce 20kg 90 percent enriched uranium if centrifuge output increases to 1 SWU/machine/year (with no 20 percent stockpile):
      • Using just operating centrifuges: 69 days.
      • Using all centrifuges: 37 days.
    • Time to produce 20kg 90 precent enriched uranium if centrifuge output increases to one SWU/machine/year (with 26kg 20 percent stockpile):
      • Using just operating centrifuges: 65 days.
      • Using all centrifuges: 35 days.
    • Time to produce 20kg 90 percent enriched uranium with no 20 percent stockpile:
      • Using just operating centrifuges: 87 days.
      • Using all centrifuges: 50 days.


1 As of latest IAEA report: “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Board of Governors Report, International Atomic Energy Agency, May 23, 2014 (GOV/2014/28)

2 This calculation assumes Iran uses a 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 percent and 20 percent enriched uranium. For a more detailed explanation, see here.

KEYWORDS: INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY, IRAN, JOINT PLAN OF ACTION, NUCLEAR WEAPONS