Jeffrey LewisWhat Are Five Years Among Friends? Iran Confirms 1998 Pu Experiments

IAEA Deputy Director for Safeguards Pierre Goldschmidt delivered a confidential report to the IAEA Board of Governors today. Agence France Presse obtained a draft.

Goldschmidt updated the Board on a long-running dispute. In 2003, Iran admitted to reprocessing small amounts of plutonium (Pu) between 1988-1993. Based on Pu samples, the IAEA disputed four aspects of Iran’s admission including the 1993 cut-off date.

“In a letter dated 26 May 2005,” Goldschmidt reportedly said, “Iran confirmed the agency’s understanding with regard to that chronology.” Richard Benstein of the New York Times adds:

… the agency’s investigations of plutonium discs brought to Vienna under seal in October 2003 indicated that one sample had been processed in 1995 and the other in 1998. Those findings were hinted at in an agency report published in November.

The relevant section of the November report —IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei’s November 2004 Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran—is worth reading in full:

A.1.7. Reprocessing Development

71. Between 1988 and 1993, Iran carried out plutonium separation experiments at TNRC. The shielded glove boxes in which these experiments were carried out were dismantled in 1993, relocated to JHL and used for other purposes. In 1995, Iran started constructing the MIX Facility. However, as the neutron flux of TRR is not sufficient for the production of the radioisotopes referred to above using natural uranium targets, the facility has not yet been commissioned.


72. In its letter of 21 October 2003, Iran acknowledged the irradiation of depleted UO2 targets at TRR and subsequent plutonium separation experiments in shielded glove boxes in the Nuclear Safety Building of TNRC. Neither the activities nor the separated plutonium had been reported previously to the Agency.

73. In meetings held in Iran between 27 October and 1 November 2003, Iran provided additional information about these experiments. According to Iranian officials, the experiments took place between 1988 and 1993, and involved pressed or sintered UO2 pellets prepared at ENTC using depleted uranium that had been exempted from safeguards in 1978. Iran stated that the capsules containing the pellets had been irradiated in TRR in connection with a project to produce fission product isotopes of molybdenum, iodine and xenon, and that some of the capsules had been processed and the plutonium separated. The plutonium separation was carried out at TNRC in three shielded glove boxes, which, according to Iran, were dismantled in 1993 and moved to the JHL building, where the glove boxes were used for iodine production until 1999. They were dismantled in 1999, decontaminated and sent to ENTC in 2000, where they have been stored along with related equipment since then. Iran has stated that these experiments were carried out to learn about the nuclear fuel cycle, and to gain experience in reprocessing chemistry.

74. On 8 November 2003, the Agency was able to take samples from the separated plutonium, which was presented to the Agency in the form of plutonium solution contained in two bottles, one of which had completely leaked out of its container. During their inspection at JHL, Agency inspectors were also shown four heavily shielded containers said by Iran to contain the unprocessed irradiated targets. The containers had been buried on the site of TNRC, but were dug up and presented to the Agency for verification. Using available non-destructive analysis equipment, Agency inspectors were able to confirm that one of the containers (selected at random) contained highly radioactive material characteristic of irradiated targets. All four containers have been placed under Agency seal for future examination.

75. However, on the basis of information available to it as of November 2003, the Agency concluded: that the amount of separated plutonium declared by Iran had been understated (quantities in the milligram range rather than the microgram range as stated by Iran); that the plutonium samples taken from a glove box said to have been involved had plutonium-240 (Pu-240) abundance higher than that found in the plutonium solution bottles presented; that there was an excess amount of americium-241 (Am-241) in the samples; and that the age of the plutonium solution in the bottles appeared to be less than the declared 12–16 years.

76. On the basis of a subsequent recalculation carried out by it using corrected irradiation data and a corrected equation, Iran acknowledged in May 2004 that its theoretical estimations of the quantities of plutonium produced had been understated (micrograms rather than milligrams) and accepted the Agency’s estimate of about 100 mg as having been correct.

77. Iran has stated that the plutonium with higher Pu-240 abundance originated from work carried out between 1982 and 1984 at the TNRC Radiochemistry Laboratory on the production of smoke detectors using Am-241. Iran stated that the Am-241 had been imported from abroad prior to the Iranian revolution in 1979, and explained that, in 1990, the glove box that had been used in connection with the Am-241 had been transferred to the building where the plutonium separation took place, but that it had been used for training purposes and not for plutonium experiments. This work, in Iran’s view, not only explained the Pu-240 contaminant, but also the high Am-241 content in the samples. According to Iran, the glove box involved in this work, along with other glove boxes, was moved in 2000 to a warehouse at ENTC.

78. The age of the plutonium solutions was discussed during meetings that took place in early August 2004. The Agency explained in detail the methodology it had used for dating the plutonium that had been separated, and additional on going work to validate the results. The Iranian officials reiterated their previous statement that the experiments had been completed in 1993 and that no plutonium had been separated since then. The Agency agreed to further analyse the available data. On 15 September 2004, a new set of samples was taken from the plutonium solution. The preliminary results of the analyses of the samples thus far are the same as those previously obtained, indicating that the plutonium could have been separated after 1993. On 29 October 2004, the Agency requested additional clarifications, which are needed for a final assessment.

That Mr. Bernstein described eight full paragraphs as a “hint” serves as depressing testimony on the decline of subtlety in American culture and possibly explains the rise of Britney Spears.

But, I digress.

The Iranian ommissions are stunningly similar to the ones made by North Korea in 1992, particularly regarding Pu-240 and Am-241. North Korea, however, had large amounts of spent fuel that could be reprocessed into kilograms of Pu; Iran is dealing with miligrams of Pu.

The Iranian declaration was obviously inaccurate, but the inaccuracies are puzzling given the scale of Tehran’s research. Why backdate an eight-year old experiment by another five years or turn miligrams of Pu into micrograms?

Perhaps Iran is rather more like the other Korea, which recently admitted to seperating plutonium in 1982, as well as conducting a host of other suspicious nuclear activities. The Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) carried out dodgy work that was not reported to superiors. Jungmin Kang, Peter Hayes, Li Bin, Tatsujiro Suzuki and Richard Tanter conclude the suspicious work “was not conducted with specific political or military oversight or direction, nor was it supported by the South Korean government or high-level policy makers.”

The problem is that we simply do not know much about who oversees weapons-related nuclear work in Iran, although the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) is the usual suspect.

Many observers, including Shahram Chubin and Farideh Fahri, suspect that the nuclear program is kept small and shielded from the scrutiny of any reformists. Bureaucratic games might explain the inaccurate declaration, as well as suggest a continuing role for intrustive inspections during negotiations.