Slowly Stockpiling HEU

Quarterly reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Director General (DG) Yukiya Amano are becoming increasingly strident. In his latest, probably meant alarming, report of September 2, Amano states (under G. Possible Military Dimensions) that, “…  the Agency is increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of past and current undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency continues to receive new information.”  (Emphasis added.) He refers to the long list of examples in the previous report.

“The information available to the Agency in connection with these outstanding issues is extensive and comprehensive and has been acquired both from many Member States and through its own efforts. It is also broadly consistent and credible in terms of technical detail, the time frame in which the activities were conducted and the people and organisations involved.”

Information and evidence are two different kettle of fish. Iran has pointed time and again that certain sensitive information which is related to security issues would not be IAEA’s business. Furthermore (as rightfully lamented by the IAEA, also time and again), Iran has not ratified its Additional Protocol which would enable IAEA inspectors to visit suspect sites on a short notice. And it has not ratified modified Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) which would force Iran to submit design information for new facilities to the Agency as soon as the decision to construct a new facility has been made. Iran had implemented both voluntarily in 2003 but withdrew this part of cooperation after the IAEA had referred the case to the UN Security Council for the first time in 2006. Since neither had ever been ratified by Iran’s parliament, it remains disputed whether Iran is “in violation of obligations under the NPT, its IAEA Safeguard Agreement, and relevant UN Security Council resolutions” as the recent Compliance Report of the U.S. State Department had again concluded. The issue might in fact be solved if the recent Russian initiative and proposal to overcome the stalemate of Iran’s nuclear issues is taken seriously among World powers P5+1. Iran has already accepted the basics, of the proposal which by and large consists of a stepwise negotiation approach including lifting of sanctions in order to create mutual confidence rather than the past “carrot and stick” strategy.

Another issue of the IAEA’s “increasing concern” are Iran’s ongoing attempts to enrich uranium to 19.75%. 19.75%-enriched uranium, which is technically still low-enriched uranium (LEU) (conventionally, high enriched uranium (HEU) is 20% and higher) is meant to be used in the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) to manufacture medical isotopes by irradiation. While Iran has been stockpiling 70.8 kg of up-to-19.75%-enriched uranium 235 since February 2010, when it first had announced its production at the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) in Natanz, apparently it has recently changed the purpose of the Fordow FEP when announcing that it would produce 19.75% enriched uranium there and on a larger scale than previously in Natanz. Originally, the site had been planned to be part of a contingency plan for producing LEU at up to 5% in case the site at Natanz would have been bombed by foreign powers. Now, 136 new domestically designed IR-2m and 27 IR-4 centrifuges in cascades have been installed at Fordow  and Iran’s Vice President and Head of the Atomic Energy Organization Fereydoun Abbasi had announced in April that the up-to-20% uranium enrichment is being tripled at the underground Fordow FEP.

The crux is that few countries would be able to manufacture fuel rods or plates from below 20% LEU which could be used in the TRR. That has been the obstacle and main reason why Iran had asked in the first place the IAEA in June 2009 for assisting Iran to buy the plates which were about to run out soon. P5+1 had suggested a swap deal where 3.5% LEU would have been shipped to Russia and France would have manufactured the plates. This deal and further suggestions by Iran, Turkey and Brazil had failed mainly due to Western and the Obama Administration’s stubbornness, and a new round of UN sanctions had been implemented. So, the current situation is more or less a direct consequence of denying Iran its right to enrich uranium by all means.

So far, Iran is not able to manufacture fuel plates, though. Amano writes that,

“43. On 10 August 2011, the Agency carried out a PIV (physical inventory verification) and a DIV (design information verification) at FMP (Fuel Manufacturing Plant in Esfahan) and confirmed that Iran had not yet started to install equipment for the fabrication of fuel for the TRR.”

At a briefing of the Arms Control Association on 22 November 2010, former IAEA Deputy DG of the IAEA Olli Heinonen said Iran would not be able to manufacture the fuel for the TRR for another one or two years. Up-to-20% LEU is rather close to weapons grade HEU of 90% enrichment or more. Demonstrating its ability to manufacture the plates and fuelling the TRR would create confidence in Iran’s peaceful intentions.

It is however more likely that it would also further stoke Western fears, since the next step, i.e. weapons grade HEU, would be easy.

Last modified September 4, 2010.

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