Mark HibbsRevisiting Enrichment for Bushehr

Underground at Anhalter Bahnhof and waiting for the S2 train a couple of mornings ago,  a reporter rang me up to talk about Iran.

He had read this piece written a few days before, in which I had run down why the Russians had become increasingly perturbed in recent months about Iran’s claim that it needed to enrich and fabricate fuel for its Bushehr-1 reactor. Based on what Russian sources have told me since November, I’m nearly certain that vendor Rosatom has no real desire to permit Iran to make this fuel anytime soon, regardless of my encouragement back in the beginning of 2013 that Russia and other powers negotiating with Iran seriously think about that long-term option.

The journalist, Jonathan Tirone of Bloomberg, roped me into a discussion (by this time I was coasting on the S-Bahn through Berlin-Zehlendorf) about whether Iran, in lieu of fabricating fuel for Bushehr, could scratch its itch by enriching some uranium and shipping it off to Russia to be fabricated into fuel for the reactor.

That conversation contributed to this story which Tirone’s editors sent out on the wire later the same day. Going beyond the point that everyone and his uncle had noticed the day before–that the Iranians were openly using separative work units (SWU) instead of the number of centrifuges as a benchmark in framing their “practical needs” to enrich uranium–the piece established that, in principle, a gambit could be thought up permitting Iran to enrich some fuel for its power reactors, as I had suggested 18 months ago.

Thinking along those lines, and going beyond what made it into print in the wire article, the powers and Iran, were they so inclined, could agree to something like this:

  • Iran could use a specified and limited number of centrifuges (or instead installed centrifuge capacity expressed in SWU/year) to produce enriched uranium product (EUP) which would be shipped to Russian fuel fabricator TVEL to make a limited amount of fabricated fuel for the reactor at Bushehr.
  • Iran might initially be permitted to enrich up to about 10,000 SWU/y (roughly consistent with the number of centrifuges Iran is currently operating), and gradually increase this amount.
  • The agreement would expressly allow the enrichment for the purpose of producing a specific amount of EUP dedicated to fueling specific reactors in Iran only.
  • Since a Russo-Iran understanding from 1992 calls for Russia to supply the fuel for Bushehr for the entire operating lifetime of the reactor, going this route would penalize Russian industry. So Iran and the powers would have to work out a deal to compensate Russian industry for the revenue it would forfeit in permitting Iran to enrich the uranium.
  • This arrangement would obtain for as long as the comprehensive agreement between the EU3+3 and Iran remained in force. Thereafter Iran would be free to tailor its nuclear fuel production infrastructure to meet its “practical needs” by a combination of domestic activities and reliance on the world market.
  • With that end in sight, the powers and especially Russia could in coming years negotiate with Iran a longer-term cooperative arrangement underpinned by political incentives (not necessarily limited to nuclear energy) that would encourage Iran to rely on outside sources for fuel and enrichment services for most of what it needs after the “final step” expires.
  • How much centrifuge capacity Iran would be permitted under the comprehensive agreement to produce EUP for its reactor (or reactors, should enrichment for the IR-40 unit be included in such a deal) would depend on the extent to which Iran satisfies the EU3+3 on issues it believes essential.
  • Accordingly, the longer the term of a comprehensive agreement, and the more Iran cooperates with the IAEA in answering PMD-related questions, addresses concerns about the IR-40, and permits access and verification beyond what’s in Iran’s Additional Protocol (AP-plus measures would be developed in part from what the IAEA learned from Iran about its nuclear weapons-related capabilities), the more centrifuges Iran would be permitted to produce the EUP it needs.


If, as we have heard, the negotiation between EU+3 and Iran is getting hung up over the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate, the above approach might overcome that impasse, especially if Iran accommodates the powers on other significant matters as I suggest above, and Russian industry is compensated.

Breakout is the Bottom Line

But every plan which has been advocated so far to deal with Iran’s demand for “enrichment equity” has come with its own potential risks and perceived downsides.

My boss George Perkovich, for example, last week dusted off the proposal that, instead of allowing Iran to enrich uranium for Bushehr or fabricate the fuel in Iran, Russia should fabricate several years’ requirements for fresh fuel for Bushehr which could be stored in Iran. That’s a good idea. But it, as well as a separate plan put forth by colleagues at Princeton, would also encourage Iran to transition to far more powerful centrifuges.

At least until recently, some people looking in at the EU3+3 group, thinking about the future of Iran’s centrifuge R&D program, aimed to blunt development of more advanced centrifuges by Iran, at least for as long as the comprehensive agreement with Iran would be in force. They were not comfortable with a deal that would suspend for a limited time uranium enrichment by Iran but allowed Iran without restraint to develop centrifuges capable of producing significant quantities of weapons-grade uranium far more quickly than P-1s and which–as soon as the comprehensive agreement expired–could be set up in more compact and more easily-hidden cascades. (Question: Would the EU3+3 also inform NSG members they may permit export to Iran of the carbon fiber and other nuclear and dual-use items it needs for advanced centrifuges? You may bet that Iran will request this courtesy.) The counterargument is that ultimately, after the expiration of the comprehensive agreement, nothing can prevent Iran from revving up its centrifuge R&D effort, and that, from the point of view of verification, it won’t matter to the IAEA how capable Iran’s centrifuges are.

The alternative approach I put forth above presents completely different problems.

Using recent long-term enrichment contracts as a benchmark, the cost of compensating Russian industry (in fact, Tenex) for foregone enrichment business in Iran during the term of the comprehensive agreement might be something like $14 million per year if Iran were eventually to enrich enough uranium for one reload per year. That’s peanuts compared to the $20-billion barter deal which Iran and Russia have reportedly put together, or an equivalent-priced arrangement for four new VVER power plants not yet finalized.

The deal I outline above puts Russia onto a slippery slope, however, as it could be expected that, once Russia honors Iran’s demand to enrich uranium for a portion of the Bushehr fuel, Iran would squeeze Russia to permit Iran to enrich all the fuel needed for Bushehr and any new reactors. If Iran and Russia eventually conclude the sale of four more VVER power plants, if we assume an operating regime based on quarter-core reloads, these plus Bushehr-1 (beyond the first cores) would annually require about 500,000 SWU/y–the equivalent of perhaps 700,000 P1 centrifuges or about 20,000 advanced machines if Iran’s throughput estimate of 24 SWU/machine/y is credible. At that point we’re talking serious money for Russian industry:  If Iran enriches all the uranium needed for these reactors, the Russians would forfeit maybe $70-million per year in revenue from performing enrichment services under long-term contracts with Iran.

But at the end of the day, and for better or worse, any plan permitting Iran to enrich its own power reactor fuel anytime soon runs aground on the formidable iceberg of the Joint Plan of Action’s breakout logic–developed in part to come up with hard numbers to persuade critics of diplomacy in Israel and the U.S. Congress that the JPOA right from the outset would turn back Iran’s clock to dash to a bomb.

The western powers–and until now Russia has been in agreement with them–don’t want to see Iran justifying more enrichment by producing power reactor fuel–period. According to Bob Einhorn, who has transmitted quite a bit of U.S. government thinking about the negotiations into the public space, Iranian demands for “an enrichment capacity greater than a few thousand first-generation centrifuges would give Iran an unacceptably rapid breakout capability” and therefore be a “show-stopper.”


  1. Tobias Piechowiak (History)

    Hi Mark,
    very informative piece about the Iran issue. Beside the doubts that I have about the russians make concessions about fuel supply I was wondering about some of the numbers you present.
    For a 1000 MWe reactor the annual fuel requirement would be in the 20 MT EUP ballpark if you exchange 1/4 of the core. Assuming a 4% product assay with 0.3% in the tails one needs around 105000 SWU
    instead of the 20000 you mention in the beginning of the text something Iran won’t have so soon I guess. I am sorry maybe I am misunderstanding something…

    PS: If you are a bit into soccer then Berlin is the right place to be for the mach on sunday;-)


    • mark (History)


      You’re absolutely correct for which I thank you. I had conflated 20 MT of EUP with 20 K SWU/y—no doubt too many 20s….That 20 MTU number is also consistent with my information I included in the piece I did last week [linked in this post] on what Iran wants Russia to permit Iran to fabricate by 2021. So I fixed it in the post. The Bushehr reactor has a power rating of about 900 MW so I called the reload 100 K SWU. This would mean that the 10 K SWU/y number which maybe they could do now is just a small fraction of a reload. That shouldn’t cause anyone any heartburn, mabye not even Bob Einhorn. The question for Russia and Iran however would be the slippery slope.

      No worries–We’ll all be watching in real time when Germany and Argentina begin their play at 21:00 or so CET.

  2. jobi (History)

    You seem to be missing the point in this blog. Iran is going to manufacture nuclear fuel, all you can do about it is spin that into a problem – hence the title of the blog. There will be agreement between the powers that matter- Russia and china- that Iran can produce fuel as required, if USA ,UK,France and Israel disagree they can continue with their programming of sanctions, destabilisation and assassination. It won’t change Iran’s course. There are principles at stake.

    • mark (History)


      Couple of points about which I think you are misinformed. 1.) It won’t be up to “the powers that matter–Russia and China” to decide this. If the US and EU group don’t agree, there’s no deal. 2.) Re your comment: “It won’t change Iran’s course.” Maybe not, but Iran right now has no wherewithall to fabricate qualified nuclear fuel for Bushehr. If it does that without Russia’s approval, it’s in deep trouble technically and legally. And right now, Russia isn’t prepared to let Iran do that.

    • rwendland (History)

      Mark, can you expand on the legal (IPR?) issues of Iran producing VVER fuel? After all, Westinghouse produced VVER fuel for Ukraine (with some issues) – I don’t think they got a license from Rosatom to do that. Is it merely terms in the Bushehr-1 contract, which might be relaxed for any Bushehr-2 to 4 contract?

      NB A difficulty in producing VVER fuel rods is the more complex hexahedral shaped fuel assemblies which packs a little better compared to the square assembly design for other PWRs.

    • mark (History)


      Westinghouse as you refer to has developed and fabricated fuel for VVERs in Czech Republic and Ukraine. But sources in those places say WEC had to essentially re-invent the wheel to do it, because it (for understandible reasons) WEC was not provided the IP for design of core internals by Rosatom. That caused WEC a heap of problems: legal issues, technical issues, and the concomitant delays and cost increases.

      Theoretically Iran could do the same. But unlike Westinghouse (which is a major and longstanding global PWR fuel vendor) Iran doesn’t have any experience in making fuel for PWRs. Rosatom didn’t give the IP to WEC, and so it won’t just hand it over to Iran. There is an agreement between Rosatom and Iran on liability for Bushehr-1 which commits Iran not to do things that would have potentially adverse safety implications at the reactor. If Iran were to try to load homemade fuel into the reactor without it being qualified in what would have to be a partnership with Rosatom, the liability agreement would be terminated.

      Rosatom could cut a different deal with Iran for Bushehr-2-plus units. If they do it the way I outline in the post, Rosatom and Tenex get compensated for their trouble (after oil sanctions are lifted Iran will have the money) and it could go forward. But as long as the powers led by the U.S. are fixated on Iran breaking out, the resistance to this approach will be insurmountable. JPOA was conceived as a kind of package deal which would be crafted to show U.S. lawmakers and Israeli leaders with real numbers that the nuclear threat posed by Iran was being reduced from the very day that JPOA went into force in January.

      As long as the Iran deal architecture is structured by and large to address the prospect that Iran will use declared centrifuges under IAEA safeguards to make weapons-grade uranium, what I discuss in the post will remain on paper only.

    • rwendland (History)

      Thanks for that very full reply Mark.

      One thing that intrigues me here is China’s position. If there was no politics in this, seems to me Iran would be a leading contender for the first Chinese ACC1000 (CPR1000/ACP1000 merger) export, for somewhat the same reasons the APR-1400s for UAE were Korea’s first reactor export. A reactors for Iranian gas deal has commercial mileage. Do you know if China is keeping well out of this frying pan, or are they sniffing around for a possible deal that Iran might prefer to Russia, or at least in addition to Russia after Bushehr-3? Fabricating ACC1000 fuel might be easier than VVER fuel, and pushes the timeframe many years down the road.

    • mark (History)


      A good question. One of the caveats you will find I included in my January 2013 proposals for an intensified Russo-Iranian nuclear cooperation (linked in the above post) is that China might object to a deal which basically locked up for Russian industry future nuclear power plant sales to the detriment of its own export ambitions. We haven’t heard a peep from anyone about what China is doing at the table in Vienna. We hear that Russia is giving the US a lot of rope in negotiating this, but not a word about China.

  3. Rob Goldston (History)

    An additional advantage of Iran supplying the enriched uranium for Russia to fabricate into fuel is that the enriched uranium could be shipped out as it is produced, eliminating large stockpiles in Iran.

    A key element missing here is real-time enrichment monitoring. If the IAEA detects > 5% enrichment, it sends in inspectors immediately. If this is confirmed, Iran is required to stop its centrifuges. If inspectors are not allowed in, or if Iran refuses to spin-down its centrifuges, then a pre-arranged agreement between the EU3+3 is activated, to “pull the plug”.

    • mark (History)


      Yes, I argued in that piece back in early 2013 that shipping out the enriched product from Iran to Russia for fabrication would do three things: soak up Iran’s declared centrifuge capacity, provide Iran a peaceful-use path for future enrichment activity which could be the centerpiece of a longer-term cooperative arrangement between Iran and Russia/other powers, and get the enriched product out of the country but back in the form of fabricated fuel assemblies that would be put in storage and under IAEA safeguards seals.

      On your point two: agreed, natch. It would have to be stipulated that the deal’s off if Iran crosses the line into enrichment above what’s needed for Bushehr (assuming that Iran and the powers handle separately the issue of any 19%-enriched uranium needed by Iran)

    • Rob Goldston (History)

      If everyone were to go with real-time enrichment monitoring, and a pre-agreed deal for the EU3+3 to “pull the plug” within a couple of weeks if enrichment goes over 5% — couldn’t the EU3+3 agree with Iran on a constant level of SWUs for some interim period and rejiggering Arak, in trade for graded lifting of sanctions… while the PMD issues are resolved and the Additional Protocol Plus is implemented?

      On the PMD front, I don’t see the big face-saving problem. The Fatwa was issued in 2003, and the big push for nuclear weapons is alleged to be pre-2003. Isn’t it obvious that one doesn’t issue a Fatwa against something that no one is doing. So admit to pre-2003, and let us talk with everyone about post-2003.

  4. Tobias Piechowiak (History)

    Besides the commercial interest Russia has in the dealings with Iran I doubt that the major powers (including China) would be happy about an additional pretext for Iran to significantly ramp up its enrichment business…

    I seem to somehow remember that China might not have exclusive right to market the AC1000 because it’s based on the french PWR 900 MWe series. Thus Pakistan might be the only geographical area to sell it to in the near future…

    • yousaf (History)

      Taking a broader view, that statement is intriguing.

      In a sense, it means Pakistan was wise to stay out of the NPT — being now eligible for Chinese reactors, enriching, making Pu, etc. to its heart’s content.

      Whereas Iran, an NPT signatory, whose CSA-relevant non-compliance issues were fixed by 2008 is still entangled in an extra-judicial and largely political mess.

      As just one example, the reasons for the Ch. 7 UN sanctions on Iran apply much more to the 3 non-signatories of the NPT.

      If I was a developing nation and someone proposed a new non-proliferation agreement (say, the CTBT), I would really think twice before signing on. Seems it is wiser to stay out of these agreements. All the benefits and none of the hassle and sanctions etc.

  5. VirtualNomad (History)

    “The journalist, Jonathan Tirone of Bloomberg, roped me into a discussion (by this time I was coasting on the S-Bahn through Berlin-Zehlendorf) about whether Iran, in lieu of fabricating fuel for Bushehr, could scratch its itch by enriching some uranium and shipping it off to Russia to be fabricated into fuel for the reactor.”

    I hope he didn’t inhibit your view of the Schlachtensee (See “Slaughter Lake:” Interesting word play — makes one think of a dog.

    It looks helpful of you to define the nuclear-technology jargon of “enrichment services.” Areva, Urenco and Rosatom all provide that turnkey approach. It’s easy enough to check in their books. You helpfully cited the spot price among your words.

    What does spot-price availability tell us? Enrichment services are the low-margin end of the nuclear-fuel market. After seeing both casks of UF6 hauled around at Almelo and handling mock-ups of VVER fuel assemblies in Paks, I have some idea about where the value-added sweet spot in the nuclear business rests.

    While it may be laughable by many commercial measures to calculate the utility of resources Iran has spent on low-margin-enrichment capacity, who is really so wise to judge? BMD? LCS? Pets.Com? Societies constantly make questionable investments. To apply the mammalian allusion used in your post, Iran’s pursuit of uranium enrichment ahead of other fuel-cycle technologies wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen the tail wag a dog.

    You referred several times on ACW about your previous proposal. After revisiting the link, I intuited that this was the key piece:

    “Were Russia to agree to provide additional power reactors to Iran, it might also agree to transfer technology and equipment to permit Iran to fabricate the fuel, using EUP enriched in Iran. In advance of the operation of such a fuel fabrication plant, Iran could agree to convert its enriched UF6 inventory to UO2. Iran could also fabricate UO2 pellets for VVER fuel assemblies in advance of making assemblies and loading and irradiating the fuel in a power reactor, as the UO2 would be chemically stable after pelletization.”

    Quite interesting! You went far beyond the points suggested by the journalist. Among the various technical solutions that could open a breakthrough, the one that the reporter seemed to imply was simple recognition that Iran has achieved the base technical ability to offer “enrichment services.” Who would imagine Russia would transfer hard won intellectual property! Shouldn’t Iran have to work on that themselves?

    There is nevertheless one key point (aside from your excellent 2013 essay) that should be noted: Under both the journalist’s query and your suggested terms with Russia, Iran wouldn’t be “scratching” but “providing.” It wouldn’t be “itching” but “servicing.”

    And there’s the rub. Many technical solutions are on offer but the language of politics has so far proven incapable of handling the technology. Or the industry, for that matter…

  6. Cyrus (History)

    You guys are missing the point. Iran offered to ship out its stockpile of LEU for fuel fabrication before — the US refused. That’s because this conflict is not, and never was, about any “nuclear threat” from Iran — that as always just a pretext for a policy of trying to topple the regime, and the US was never prepared to take “yes” for an answer.

    Secondly I’d like to know by what right would these foreign powers dictate to Iran how many centrifuges or how much enrichment it can have. Because there is absolutely no basis for these powers to try to impose ad hoc limits on Iran, and every single Iranian knows that VERY well. Iran is going to be a nuclear energy power. Iran will NOT allow itself to be reliant on foreign sources — certainly not the same Russians that even Cheney accused of practicing energy blackmail. And, Iran will be an EXPORTER of nuclear technology. Better adjust.

  7. Nick (History)

    Your proposal in a nutshell is “spin it and ship it.”

    This is probably the only win-win solution that both sides may agree on, if some of the details are worked out.

    It will prolong the “breakout” period and provide a face saving for Iranians.

    Even if Russia is not interested in using Iran’s LEU for Bushehr and other future plants in IRI, Iran can offer it to others that produce fuel rods for non-Russian plants.

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