2012-11-21 by Richard Weitz
While Iranian missiles are being used in the Gaza strip, and the Israelis are shaping a strategy to deal with them, an update on Iran and its nuclear program is of pressing importance.
It is time to put wishful thinking in the corner, and get realistic about the realities in the Middle East.
Negotiating with a power not intending to be transparent is already a statement of intention.
The latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report provides further evidence of Iran and its approach.
The key sentences in the November 16, 2012, quarterly report of the IAEA on Iran’s nuclear program can be found in the summary near the end.
One states that: “as Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation … the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”
The second laments that, “despite the intensified dialogue between the Agency and Iran since January 2012, no concrete results have been achieved in … clarifying the issues relating to possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.”
The third expresses “concern that the extensive and significant activities which have taken place since February 2012 at the location within the Parchin site [a military base where Iran is suspected to have conducted nuclear weapons research but is now being dissembled] to which the Agency has requested access will have seriously undermined the Agency’s ability to undertake effective verification.”
These statements come after years of IAEA efforts, supplemented by many rounds of international negotiations and multiple UN and other multilateral sanctions , to resolve these issues and place credible constraints on Iran’s expanding nuclear weapons potential.
Iran has allowed the IAEA to monitor its activities at its 16 declared nuclear facilities and the 10 locations where nuclear material is customarily used (these are all in hospitals). The IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council have however demanded that Iran cease these activities until Tehran has satisfied the IAEA and the international community that all its nuclear activities are peaceful. Iran is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which prohibits Iran from engaging in such research, and authorizes the IAEA to ensure the compliance of all parties with their treaty commitments.
As of November 2012, Iran has produced 7,611 kg of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas, whose proportion of the fissile isotope Uranium-235 (U-235) has been raised to up to 5%; this low-enriched uranium is most suitable for use in most commercial nuclear power reactors:
- 5,303 kg is presently in readily available in storage
- 1,226 kg has been fed into the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) , located at Natanz.
- 1,029 kg has been fed into the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), at Qom, for enrichment up to 20% U-235
- 53 kg has been converted into UO2, for use in fuel rods for commercial reactors.
This latest IAEA report also states that Iran continues to manufacture 20% enriched uranium, purportedly to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) as well as other research and medical reactors. As of November 2012, Iran has produced 232.8 kg of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235, of which:
- 134.9 kg is presently in available in storage
- 1.6 kg has been downblended to 5% LEU
- 96.3 kg has been set aside for conversion to U3O8 fuel rods for the TRR.
The 135 kg of 20% LEU is most worrisome since it could be further enriched to weapons-grade levels in a few months. Iran continues to produce 15 kg of 20 U-235 each month, and might soon double its output since it has already installed thousands of additional centrifuges at the FFEP that could soon begin operating.
An interesting item in the latest report is that Iran’s controversial LEU-power nuclear power reactor at Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) has stopped operations and the Iranians even withdrew the fuel rods from the reactor in October 2012.
The plant has suffered from many setbacks that repeatedly delayed when it starts producing civilian nuclear power. An earlier 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.
These incidents have heightened concerns about the safety of the plant, which has been built intermittently over a 30-year period by several different foreign companies whose technologies and techniques may not always harmonize. Iran has also declined to sign the Nuclear Safety Convention and other international nuclear safety and security agreements.
IAEA reports confirm that Iranian authorities have basically granted the IAEA inspectors the required access to the Bushehr, Fordow, and Natanz nuclear facilities, leading the IAEA to state that it has confidence that there has been no diversion of their enriched uranium for military purposes.
But at the September 2012 annual meeting of all IAEA member states, Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, the head of Iran’s nuclear agency, accused the agency of having been infiltrated by “terrorists” and saboteurs, which has resulted in the IAEA personnel in Iran working in an intimidating atmosphere.
Even worse, the IAEA reports have repeatedly complained about Iran’s denial of IAEA access to the sprawling Parchin military complex located 30km southwest of Tehran. The IAEA suspects Iran conducted nuclear weapons-related research there a decade ago. In particular, the IAEA has reports that “Iran constructed a large explosives containment vessel in which to conduct hydrodynamic experiments,” which according to the agency “would be strong indicators of possible nuclear weapon development.”
Ever since the IAEA asked to inspect the site in January 2012, the Iranians have been “sanitizing” the site to remove evidence of any past nuclear activities there.
“As previously reported,” the November 2012 report notes, “satellite imagery available to the Agency for the period from February 2005 to January 2012 shows virtually no activity at or near the building housing the containment vessel. Since the Agency’s first request for access to this location, however, satellite imagery shows that extensive activities and resultant changes have taken place at this location.” The IAEA earlier reported that Iran “has been conducting activities at that location that will significantly hamper the Agency’s ability to conduct effective verification.” These include substantial ” ground scraping and landscaping … over an extensive area at and around the location,” as well the demolition of five buildings as well as the removal of power lines, fences, and paved roads near the site.
Iran has also impeded IAEA access to Iran’s Heavy Water Production Plant (HWPP), also known as the Qatran Complex, located at Khondab, near Arak. It began operating in November 2004 and manufactures up to 16 metric tons of heavy water annually for eventual use by the IR-40 reactor currently under construction in Arak, which Iran states will be completed in the first quarter of 2014. Iran has stated that it is not planning to construct a plant to separate the plutonium from the irradiated fuel that the reactor will produce, which could be used to make a nuclear bomb.
The last IAEA visit at the HWPP occurred in August 2011. According to the IAEA, satellite imagery shows that the HWPP is in operation. Furthermore, Iran has not yet provided the IAEA with access to the heavy water stored at the Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) at Esfahan in order to take samples.
Furthermore, Iran has been denying agency requests for more information about its previous announcement to construct ten additional uranium enrichment facilities as well as use laser enrichment technologies and third-generation centrifuge.
Another unresolved issue is the Iranian government’s December 2010 declaration that it intends to construct 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 remains 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. And it could unfortunately happen again at any time in the future.
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