On August 26, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report saying that “there remain a number of important outstanding issues,” about Tehran’s nuclear programs that require “urgent resolution.” The report updates the agency’s Iran investigation, presents new information about Iran’s nuclear activities, and reveals some inconsistencies in information Iran had previously provided to the IAEA about these programs. The agency will continue to investigate the unresolved issues about Iran’s nuclear activities, the report says.
One of the most important portions of the report concerns Iran’s gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment program. Washington publicly confirmed in December that Iran has a uranium-enrichment facility at the Iranian town of Natanz. Uranium enrichment can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, but it also has civilian energy applications.
Iran has made substantial progress on the facility. By February, Iran had installed more than 100 centrifuges at the Natanz facility’s pilot plant, but Tehran says it plans to install more than 1,000 by the end of 2003. A commercial plant also located at the site is expected to contain enough centrifuges to produce the equivalent of 25-nuclear bombs worth of fissile material each year.
The centrifuge technology’s origin is unclear. A French report presented at the May meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group asserted that the technology is likely of Pakistani origin, but the August 26 IAEA report says the machines are of “an early European design.”
The advanced state of the pilot facility has raised questions about whether Iran has tested centrifuges with nuclear material. The existence of the facility does not in itself violate Iran’s safeguards agreement, but testing centrifuges with nuclear material without declaring such tests to the IAEA would do so.
Tehran clams it used simulations to test the centrifuges without nuclear material. The report, however, dismisses this explanation and states that environmental samples taken at Natanz by agency inspectors in March and June “revealed particles of high [sic] enriched uranium.” Agency inspectors use sampling to determine if nuclear materials are present in a given location—a possible indication of past nuclear activity.
Iran had not declared that it possesses highly enriched uranium. Tehran has cited its importation of contaminated centrifuge components to explain the material’s presence. The report comments that “it is possible to envisage a number of possible scenarios to explain the presence of high enriched uranium” in the samples, adding that the IAEA will evaluate these unspecified scenarios during the course of its investigation.
A State Department official told Arms Control Today in June that Iran might have used uranium hexafluoride—the material introduced into gas centrifuges for processing into reactor-grade fuel—imported from China in 1991 to test centrifuges. A June 6 IAEA report revealed Tehran’s failure to disclose that it imported this material, although its safeguards agreement required it to do so. (See ACT, July/August 2003.) The report added that some of this material was found to be missing and Iran had not accounted for its absence. Iran asserts that it either evaporated or leaked from its containers. The agency is continuing to investigate the issue.
The August report revealed some other inconsistencies regarding Iran’s explanation of the enrichment program. For example, Iran had claimed the program was entirely indigenous and began in 1997 but has now acknowledged importing centrifuge components and gives 1985 as the correct starting date. Additionally, Iran initially claimed to have tested its centrifuges with inert gases but now says this is not the case.
Kala Electric Company
Inspectors took environmental samples at the Kala Electric Company during an August 9-12 visit, something Iran had previously refused to allow. The IAEA has been particularly interested in conducting sampling at this site because Tehran acknowledged it produced centrifuge components there, and the agency believes that sampling could help verify the government’s claim that it has not tested centrifuges with nuclear material. The samples are still being analyzed, but the most recent report notes that “considerable modification” of the Kala Electric Company site since inspectors’ first visit in March could adversely impact the samples’ accuracy.
Iran Plunges Ahead
Although the IAEA Board of Governors asked Iran in June to refrain from introducing nuclear material into the centrifuges at the Natanz facility, Iran did so on June 25 to test a single centrifuge, according to the August report. Iran began testing a small cascade of 10 centrifuges on August 19. A cascade is a series of connected centrifuges used to ensure that the uranium is enriched sufficiently. Tehran is following the appropriate safeguards measures for the facility, the report adds.
The recent report also discusses Iran’s laser-based uranium-enrichment program—an alternate method of enriching uranium mentioned as an issue of concern in the June report. The report states that “Iran has a substantial [research and development] program on lasers,” but Iran claims not to have an enrichment program. IAEA inspectors visited two sites, one at Ramandeh and the other at Lashkar Ab’ad. Only the latter was identified as having a laser testing facility, but inspectors did not find any activities related to uranium enrichment being conducted there. The IAEA has asked Iran to confirm that there had not been any past “activities related to uranium laser enrichment” at any location in the country and to allow environmental sampling at that location—a request the government is considering. Tehran had previously refused access to these sites.
Other Issues of Concern
The report also says Tehran has provided additional information about its heavy-water reactor program. The government has said it plans to construct a heavy-water research reactor at Arak, where it has also been constructing a heavy-water production plant, starting in 2004. A State Department official interviewed in June said the reactor might be part of a nuclear weapons program because it is too small to contribute significantly to a civilian energy program but could generate plutonium for reprocessing into fissile material.
According to the report, Iran claims the reactor is for producing isotopes for civilian purposes and that its size is appropriate for that purpose. The report, however, notes that Iran did not provide information about hot cells, which the IAEA says it would expect to find at a facility meant to produce isotopes. Hot cells are facilities used in isotope production, but they can also be used in reprocessing spent nuclear reactor fuel. The IAEA has asked Iran to look into the matter further, citing reports that Tehran is attempting to procure equipment used in hot cells.
The report also addresses Iran’s claim that it is building a facility that would convert uranium oxide into uranium hexafluoride without having tested it with nuclear material. Iran first told the agency that it obtained design and testing information about the facility from another country but has now admitted that it conducted uranium conversion experiments in the early 1990s, according to the report. An Iranian official announced the facility’s completion in March.
In addition, the August report contains new information about Iran’s conversion of imported uranium tetrafluoride into uranium metal. Tehran has told the IAEA that it had undertaken these conversion experiments because it had once considered constructing a uranium metal-fueled reactor. The United States is especially concerned about this issue because the most likely use Iran would have for uranium metal would be in nuclear warheads, a State Department official said in June.
Excerpts From the IAEA August 26, 2003 Report
D. Findings, Assessments and Next Steps