The Iranian nuclear crisis: growing stockpiles and rising stakes

Apr 04 2012
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament
David Cliff, London
In recent months, tensions over the Iranian nuclear programme have escalated considerably. This increase, and the associated rise in Western pressure on Iran’s government (not to mention the talk of war), is largely the result of two factors. First, the November 2011 publication – by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – of a broad-ranging overview of suspected Iranian nuclear weapons-related research and development. And second, an increase in Iran’s uranium enrichment capability (highly-enriched uranium being one of the two kinds of material essential for developing nuclear explosive devices) through the activation of a new enrichment facility.
On the first point, the IAEA’s overview of the ‘possible military dimensions’ to Iran’s nuclear programme was set out in a 12-page annex to its quarterly verification report on the country. As a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is prohibited from manufacturing nuclear arms or other nuclear explosive devices. But in remarkable detail, this annex highlighted IAEA concerns over alleged Iranian work on several components – including fast-acting detonators – that have potential relevance to the development of a nuclear weapons capability. Amongst other concerns, the annex noted further that Iran has reportedly carried out modelling studies relevant to nuclear weapons development, that it may at one stage have carried out preparatory work for a nuclear test explosion, and that it appears to have also ventured into the realm of so-called ‘hydrodynamic’ experiments. Such experiments (which seek to investigate how materials will behave in the conditions expected in a nuclear explosion) are noted by the IAEA to be ‘strong indicators of possible weapons development.’ Negotiating access to the site where these experiments are alleged to have taken place, Parchin, has been a point of particular friction between Iran and senior IAEA personnel that visited the country for discussions earlier this year.
In many Western minds, Iran is set on developing either a ‘virtual’ nuclear weapons capability – that is, the technical know-how and the material required to produce such devices at short notice – or weapons outright. Such mindsets are not surprising. Iran’s record of less-than-full cooperation with the IAEA over suspect aspects of its nuclear programme (some of which are mentioned above, others below) has done nothing to support Iranian claims that its programme is for peaceful purposes only. Technical estimates of how far Iran is from either a bomb or from the capability to produce one vary widely, however, and those estimates are often difficult in any case to divorce from underlying political and security biases. Of particular concern, though, is the IAEA’s judgement of November 2011 – reiterated in February 2012 – that some activities relevant to nuclear weapons development in Iran may still be ongoing.
Ultimately, the most crucial factor for any state seeking to build nuclear weapons is their acquisition of sufficient quantities of suitable fissile material. Without enough of the right material, building a nuclear bomb is a technical impossibility. And getting hold of such material is widely regarded as being the most technically-challenging aspect of nuclear bomb-making. As noted above, highly-enriched uranium is one of the two kinds of fissile material essential for the manufacture of nuclear weapons; the other alternative is to use plutonium. Iran is not known to have a reprocessing facility – where plutonium can be extracted from spent nuclear fuel – but it is known today to have three uranium enrichment facilities, all of which are operational (despite repeated resolutions from the IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council calling for Iran’s enrichment work to stop).
Two of these facilities – the Fuel Enrichment Plant and the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant – are located at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site. In brief, enrichment refers to the process of increasing the proportion of uranium-235 (the fissile isotope found in natural uranium) in relation to natural uranium’s more predominant isotope, uranium-238. In centrifuge-based enrichment (of the sort used by Iran), natural uranium is first combined with fluorine to form uranium hexafluoride (UF6). The latest IAEA report on Iran, released on 24 February 2012, revealed that some 5,451kg of five per cent enriched UF6 had been produced at the Fuel Enrichment Plant between the start of production there in February 2007 and early February 2012. As the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security has noted, this much material, if further enriched to weapons-grade (that is, to an enrichment level of around 90 per cent and above), is enough to make more than four nuclear weapons. (Further processing, to produce uranium metal from the enriched UF6, would also be required.)
At the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, Iran has been enriching UF6 up to the level of 20 per cent since February 2010. It is a feature of the uranium enrichment process that much of the hard work of enrichment is encountered in reaching lower enrichment levels. Enriching uranium to 20 per cent is considerably more energy-intensive than further enriching 20 per cent material up to a 90 per cent enrichment level. As a result, Iranian enrichment up to 20 per cent represents, for many, an acute cause for concern. According to Iranian estimates, between mid-September 2011 and mid-February 2012, approximately 21.7kg of 20 per cent enriched UF6 enriched was produced at the pilot plant. The Agency has previously verified that as of 13 September 2011, Iran had produced a total of 73.7kg of 20 per cent enriched UF6 there. Thus, assuming Iran’s estimates for the September-February period are correct, since enrichment up to 20 per cent at the Natanz pilot plan began, Iran had as of February 2012 produced some 95.4kg of this kind of material at this facility.
Between the release of the IAEA’s November 2011 verification report on Iran and its most recent update, Iran also began enriching UF6 up to 20 per cent at its other enrichment site: Fordow. The start of operations at Fordow represents a significant new development (if not an unexpected one) in Iran’s efforts to build up a stockpile of enriched uranium, and to increase its overall production capacity. Between mid-December 2011 and mid-February 2012, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant – constructed in secret and exposed, then-unfinished, by Western powers in September 2009 – reportedly produced some 13.8kg of 20 per cent enriched UF6 (according to Iranian estimates). Again, assuming the correctness of Iran’s estimates, between Natanz and Fordow the country has therefore produced an overall total of around 109.2kg of 20 per cent enriched UF6. That said, if further enriched to weapons-grade, the amount of uranium metal that could be produced from this amount of UF6 is still less than what the IAEA consider a ‘significant quantity’ (at which the development of one nuclear explosive device cannot be ruled out).
In terms of verification, the IAEA has regular access to both Natanz and Fordow, as well as to a number of other Iranian nuclear facilities – as provided for by Iran’s NPT-mandated ‘Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement’ with the Agency. And, indeed, the IAEA confirmed (once again) in February 2012 that it remains able to verify the ‘non-diversion of declared nuclear material’ within Iran. The IAEA is able, in other words, to verify that Iran’s declaration of its nuclear material and activities is correct. Whether Iran is providing a complete picture, however, is another matter.
The challenge of verifying completeness, which came to light in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War with Iraq (where all manner of undeclared activities were conducted), resulted in the IAEA’s development of the so-called ‘Additional Protocol’, a voluntary legal instrument that some 114 states around the world are implementing today. Iran, though, is not one of them. Without an Additional Protocol in force, which then obliges states to provide the IAEA with more information and permit greater freedom of access for Agency inspectors, the IAEA is unable to provide credible assurance of the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in a state. That the Agency is unable to provide such assurance in the case of Iran, coupled to the country's ongoing enrichment activities and the IAEA’s ‘serious concerns’ over possible weaponisation activities (which may or may not still be taking place there), makes for an understandable cause for deep unease about the scope and purpose of Iran's nuclear programme.
Recently, it was reported in the world’s press that Iran has agreed to return to the negotiating table to hold new talks with the ‘P5+1’ group of countries (that is, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). But while the stakes are high, and rising, expectations are low. Previous rounds of talks between Iran and foreign powers have failed to achieve much – and certainly not much of any enduring character. Whether these newly-proposed negotiations (scheduled to take place in Istanbul in mid-April 2012) will fare any better remains to be seen. Anecdotal evidence suggests that UN and other sanctions on Iran may be beginning to bite, so it may be that Iran is genuinely seeking some level of meaningful multilateral engagement. But it is also just as likely that the country is seeking to alleviate some of the pressure currently being applied to it, to buy more time and to dampen down the ever-increasing talk of air strikes against its nuclear facilities, while in the background continuing to press ahead with its uranium enrichment activities and its stockpiling of fissile material.
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 edition (Vol. VIII, No. 29) of the 'ITPCM International Commentary', available online here


Last changed: Apr 04 2012 at 2:15 PM