Iran Nuclear Update – 2003

Since 2002, Iran has made rapid progress in its nuclear program. The Iranian government has continued work on a 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor at Bushehr and a uranium conversion plant at Isfahan, developed a uranium mine at Saghand, and constructed a pilot uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. However, there are no indications that the government has constructed a facility to extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel. Although Iran claims that its nuclear program is strictly for civilian purposes, there is growing concern that Iran’s true intention is to develop nuclear weapons. Such a move would violate its obligations under the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, to which Iran adhered in 1970.

Uranium Mining

On February 9th, 2003, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami declared that his government intended to extract uranium from a mine at Saghand, in the province of Yazd. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) has projected that approximately 1.5 million tons of uranium ore will be available at the site, which it expects to open by the end of 2004.

Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of the AEOI, described the Saghand mine at a speech to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in May 2003. He explained how the Saghand mine fits into Iran’s plans to produce nuclear fuel indigenously. The Iranian government projects that at full capacity, the mine could produce 120,000 tons of uranium ore annually for 17 years.

Foreign Suppliers

The source of the Saghand mining technology remains unknown, although the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), a coalition of Iranian opposition groups, claims that the Chinese are involved. The NCRI claims to have witnessed about fifty Chinese experts and, more recently, two Chinese officials at the Saghand site. Experts from China’s Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology have conducted scientific exchanges with Iranian nuclear scientists and have explored in Iran in the past.

Uranium Conversion

In 2000, the Iranian government informed the IAEA Secretariat that a plant for uranium conversion was being constructed at Isfahan. In a speech to the IAEA in May 2003, Mr. Aghazadeh said that uranium ore from the Saghand mine would be turned into yellowcake, a processed form of uranium, at a plant in Ardakan, and that the Isfahan plant would convert the yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride gas. This gaseous form of uranium serves as the feedstock for centrifuges, which enrich uranium to a form suitable for either reactor fuel or nuclear weapons.

Whether the hexafluoride plant at Isfahan is currently operational is uncertain. Though one press report cited Mr. Aghazadeh as predicting in late February that the plant would begin producing uranium gas within “two to three months,” all other reports indicate that the plant is still under construction.

Foreign Suppliers

The source of Iran’s hexafluoride plant technology is unclear. As part of a 1997 agreement with the United States to prevent new cooperation and to halt all existing projects with Iran in the nuclear field, China pledged to cancel a project to help Iran build a hexafluoride plant. Despite this promise, however, China appears to have provided Iran with a blueprint for the plant. Furthermore, the CIA has reported its “concern” that Chinese firms violated the 1997 agreement.

China is also widely acknowledged to have provided Iran with 400 kg. of uranium dioxide (UO2) in 1991. Iran informed the IAEA in February, 2003 that some of this material had already been processed, including at the Jabr Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Laboratories to test uranium conversion and purification processes envisioned for the uranium conversion plant under construction.

Uranium Enrichment

Iran is developing both a pilot centrifuge plant and a commercial scale centrifuge facility at Natanz, southeast of Kashan. As of February 2003, over 100 of the approximately 1000 planned centrifuge casings had been installed at the pilot plant, with the remaining centrifuges expected by the end of the year. Iran informed the IAEA that the pilot plant would begin operating on a limited basis in June 2003, initially with single machine tests and later with increasing numbers of centrifuges. The commercial facility, which is expected to house over 50,000 centrifuges, is scheduled to begin receiving centrifuges in early 2005.

The Natanz site was first revealed in August 2002 by the NCRI. Mr. Alireza Jafarzadeh, an NCRI representative, claimed that it was camouflaged as an anti-desertification project and was managed by way of a front company called Kala (Kalaye) Electric. The Iranian government officially informed the IAEA Secretariat of the facility in September 2002.

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei visited the Natanz centrifuge site in February 2003. In his report to the IAEA Board of Governors in March, Dr. ElBaradei stated that the site included a pilot plant that was “nearly ready for operation, and a much larger enrichment facility still under construction.” According to a media report, during this visit the IAEA also discovered that the centrifuges at Natanz could be twice as efficient as Iranian data had indicated. Rather than the Iranian estimate of about six or seven separative work units (SWU) per centrifuge per year, the IAEA estimated that the throughput of Iran’s centrifuges could be as high as 12 to 14 SWU per machine per year, according to the media report.

Whether Iran has enriched any uranium in the Natanz pilot centrifuge program remains unclear. However, according to recent media reports, IAEA inspectors collecting environmental samples at the Natanz site in mid-July found traces of enriched uranium. This report may not be conclusive. The enriched uranium was apparently found only in a single sample, and “inadvertent contamination” was offered as another possible explanation for the finding.

In a press release dated May 27, 2003, the NCRI claimed that the Iranian government had also developed two additional enrichment facilities, both smaller than the Natanz facility. According to the NCRI, the first facility is located at Lashkar-Abad, near Hashtgerd, and the second is located five kilometers away, at Ramandeh village. The group claims that the Iranian regime intends to use the facilities as enrichment sub-stations or, alternatively, as back-up stations in the event of a military attack on the Natanz facility. The group also alleged that several front companies were being used to manage these and other AEOI facilities. The companies included: Hasteh Farayed Company, Kavoshyar Company, Energy Novin Company, Novin Puneh Company, Mesbah Energy Company, Kala Electric Company, Tavan Gostar Company, and Noor-Afza-Gostar Company.

Foreign Suppliers

The source of Iran’s centrifuge technology remains unknown. During a meeting in January 1995, Iran and Russia agreed to conduct future negotiations for the construction of a centrifuge plant in Iran. Reacting to this report, then Secretary of State Warren Christopher said that the United States planned to make clear to Russia that such cooperation should be halted. In May 1995, Russia denied the existence of any construction contract or agreement to provide Iran with centrifuges.

The IAEA recently revealed that Iran secretly imported 1000 kg of UF6 in 1991, reportedly from China. This material could be used to test centrifuges, though Iran maintains that no material was processed. However, when the IAEA examined the two cylinders holding the UF6 in March, one was found to be lighter than declared. Iran claimed that a small amount of UF6, about 1.9 kg, was lost due to leaking valves.

Plutonium Production

Bushehr Reactor

Russia’s Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev has predicted that the Bushehr reactor, a 1,000 megawatt Russian-supplied pressurized-light-water reactor (PWR), will formally start-up as early as 2005. Russia took over the project in 1995 after West Germany halted its construction of the plant following Iran’s 1979 revolution. The facility is capable of providing Iran with enough weapon-grade plutonium in spent reactor fuel to construct approximately 35 nuclear weapons annually. This assessment is based on an estimate of plutonium output from a typical pressurized light water power reactor.

To use the plutonium in a nuclear weapon, however, Iran would have to construct a plant to extract plutonium from the spent reactor fuel. There have been no reports that Iran is building such a facility. Furthermore, Russia appears to have an agreement with Iran requiring the spent fuel to be returned to Russia through the first decade of the Bushehr plant’s operation. In a June 2003 interview with Western correspondents, Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev stated that Russia will not provide any fresh fuel to Iran until such an agreement is signed. However, it does not appear that Russia will tie its supply of nuclear fuel to a demand that Iran sign the IAEA’s “additional protocol.” This protocol would grant the IAEA increased authority to inspect Iran’s facilities for undeclared nuclear activity. Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said that although Russia was “actively pushing” for Iran to sign the protocol, Russia would not halt its construction of the Bushehr plant because of Iran’s failure to do so.

Graphite and Heavy Water Technology

In a letter dated May 5, Mr. Aghazadeh informed the IAEA of Iran’s intention to build a heavy water power reactor using Canadian CANDU reactor technology. The announcement complemented Iran’s numerous statements of its intention to build additional reactors in order to generate about 6,000 megawatts of electricity. Immediately following this announcement, Canadian officials vigorously denied any intention of selling CANDU technology to Iran.

Iran is also constructing a heavy water production plant in Arak. First revealed by the NCRI in August 2002, the existence of a heavy water production plant at Arak was verified by commercial satellite imagery in December 2002. Mr. Aghazadeh described the site to the IAEA Board of Governors in May 2003 at the same time that he described the centrifuge facility in Natanz and the uranium mine at Saghand. He did not, however, disclose the expected date of completion, nor did he disclose who supplied the plant’s technology.

Iran is suspected of having received assistance from Russia in its pursuit of heavy water-related technology, including know-how for a heavy water research reactor and help with technology for heavy water production.

Iran could also be pursuing graphite reactor technology. Russia is believed to have helped Iran with technology for nuclear-grade graphite production.

International Regimes and Obligations

Trade in nuclear equipment and material, such as centrifuges, uranium conversion technology, heavy water and graphite, together with their related production equipment, is controlled by international regimes to which many of Iran’s supplier states are party. A number of questions have emerged as to whether Iran’s suppliers violated their commitments under these regimes.

The regimes include the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) guidelines and the Zangger Committee guidelines under Article III (2) of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The guidelines require that the export of each item on a “trigger-list” be declared to the IAEA by the exporting country, so that the agency can inspect it. The “trigger-list” is so called because the export of an item on the list triggers inspections. In 1992, the NSG list was expanded to include nuclear-related dual-use materials and technology as well as guidelines for the transfer of those items.

Russia, China and Pakistan are suspected or known to have supplied Iran with nuclear material or technology. Of the three, only Russia is party to both the NSG and Zangger Committee. China adheres to Zangger Committee guidelines and is party to the NPT, but is not a member of the NSG. Pakistan does not participate in any of these regimes.

Iran’s membership in the NPT requires that it submit all of its nuclear-related facilities and material to IAEA inspections. This includes all source or special fissionable material and all facilities where such materials are being used, processed or produced anywhere on its territory or anywhere under its control. Iran does not appear to have met these obligations. In 1991, Iran imported 1000 kg of uranium hexafluoride, 400 kg of uranium tetrafluoride and 400 kg of uranium dioxide, reportedly from China. However, because China did not accede to the NPT until 1992, this export does not appear to have violated its treaty obligation.

In a report to the IAEA Board of Governors on June 6, 2003, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei concluded that Iran had failed to satisfy its obligations under its inspection agreement. Iran had failed to report its purchase of natural uranium in 1991, failed to report the further processing of the uranium, failed to declare the facilities where the uranium was received, stored and processed, and failed to provide in a timely manner design information for its MIX (Molybdenum, Iodine and Xenon Radioisotope Production Facility) and TRR (Tehran Research Reactor) facilities, and information on waste storage at two other facilities.

Dr. ElBaradei stated that the IAEA would also look into a number of “open questions,” such as the history of Iran’s effort to enrich uranium, allegations about undeclared enrichment at the Kalaye (Kala) Electric Company, the role of uranium metal in Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle, and Iran’s plans for the use of heavy water.

Iranian Nuclear Facilities

Uranium Mineextracting uranium oreSaghandpossibly operational by the end of 2004China helped with prospecting; allegedly helped with mining
Uranium Hexafluoride Conversion Planturanium conversionIsfahan and Kashanunder constructionChina supplied blueprints
Gas Centrifuge Pilot Planturanium enrichmentNatanzpilot plant scheduled for completion by the end of 2003unknown
Gas Centrifuge Commercial Planturanium enrichmentNatanzunder constructionunknown
Gas Centrifuge Auxiliary Planturanium enrichmentLashkar-Abad, near Hashtgerdsite alleged but unconfirmedunknown
Gas Centrifuge Auxiliary Planturanium enrichmentRamandehsite alleged but unconfirmedunknown
Heavy Water Production Plantproduces heavy water, used as a moderator in nuclear reactorsArakunder constructionRussia helped with know-how
Light Water Power Reactor (1,000 MWe)electricity productionBushehrprojected completion in 2005Russia
Tehran Research Reactor (5,000 kWt)radioisotope productionTehrancompleteUnited States
Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (30 kWt)reportedly for isotope productionIsfahancompleteChina
Heavy Water Zero Power ReactorresearchIsfahancompleteChina
Graphite Sub-Critical ReactorresearchIsfahandecommissionedChina
Light Water Sub-critical ReactorresearchIsfahancompleteChina