Given the search for the sensational and the threatening, Wednesday’s headlines about the latest report on the International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear program were predictable: “Iran Expands Advanced Uranium Enrichment Capacity“; “Iran Uranium Report Renews Push for Sanctions in U.S. Congress“. So were the warnings: this was “a development likely to worry Western capitals hoping for a change of course under the country’s new president”.
But was the report really that sensational and/or threatening? What did it really say?
The three key points from the IAEA’s latest findings:
1. IRAN IS LIMITING ITS STOCKPILE OF 20% URANIUM GAS
Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium has risen only 4 kilograms since May, reaching 185.8 kilograms.
The level is still well below the notional minimum of 250 kilograms which potentially — if further enriched to more than 90% — could provide enough material for one nuclear bomb.
While Iran produced 45 kilograms of 20% uranium since May, almost all of it was converted to oxide powder, which cannot be developed for military purposes. Kelsey Davenport and Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association explain:
Uranium oxide can be converted back into uranium hexafluoride gas, and Iran has the capabilities to do so, but it is unclear how much of the material would be lost in the process. Although the exact amount of wastage is not known, experts assess that it could be as much as 60% and that reconversion would take as little as 1-2 weeks. Even in that short of time, however, it would be difficult for Iran to complete the conversion without the IAEA inspectors noticing, because it would require moving the materials.
The report does not say how much oxide powder has been turned into fuel plates, which are even further removed from any potential military use.
2. THE “ADVANCED” CENTRIFUGES ARE BEING INSTALLED, BUT ARE NOT OPERATIONAL
But what about the “Advanced Uranium Enrichment Capacity” from IR-2M centrifuges, replacing the 40-year-old IR-1 model?
The IAEA report says that Iran has installed 1,008 IR-2M centrifuges at the Natanz facility, a rise from the 689 recorded in May.
That figure is still well below the scare number of “3,000” put out at the start of the year. Moreover, none of the IR-2Ms are operating: six cascades have been vacuum tested to try out the performance of the new centrifuges, but no date have been given for the experiment.
Davenport and Kimball add the context of why the IR-2Ms are being introduced, for production of uranium for activities such as the Iran Research Reactor: T
The IR-2M has been undergoing testing for years, and [replaces]…the IR-1, which is less efficient and prone to crashing….
Iran has said that when running, the IR-2Ms will produce reactor grade uranium, which is enriched to 3.5 percent.
The number of IR-1 centrifuges poroducing 3.5% uranium is now 15,416, of which approximately 9,200 are operational in 54 cascades. In May, Iran had 13,555 installed centrifuges, of which approximately 9,000 were operational in 53 cascades.
There has been no addition to the 328 IR-1s at Natanz producing 20% uranium. The number of centrifuges producing 20% uranium at the Fordoo nuclear facility is also unchanged at 696.
3. START-UP OF ARAK HEAVY-WATER REACTOR DELAYED
For several months, critics of Iran’s nuclear program have declared the danger of the planned Arak heavy-water reactor, saying it will produce plutonium which can be used in nuclear weapons.
Iran told the IAEA on August 25 that its planned start-up date of the first quarter of 2014 for Arak is no longer possible because of construction delays. Tehran did not give a revised timeline for completion, but said it would notify the agency six months before introducing fuel in the reactor.
EA analyses have been sceptical of the claim that Arak’s plutonium, a by-product of its operations, will be used in a military program. Davenport and Kimball put the argument in context:
Independent experts assess that if Arak functions at optimal capacity, it could be used to produce sufficient plutonium to yield 9 kg annually, after separation, enough for approximately 1.5 nuclear weapons. However, the reactor at Arak would need to be operational for perhaps up to a year before the plutonium could be extracted.
Even then, Iran does not have a reprocessing facility for separating the plutonium to produce weapons-usable material, having revised its declaration to the IAEA regarding the Arak site in 2004. The revision eliminated plans for a reprocessing facility at the site.
Tehran maintains that it does not intend to build a plant to separate plutonium from the irradiated fuel that the reactor will produce.