Jeffrey LewisIran To Convert 150 Drums of Yellowcake

Francois Murphy at Reuters reports that Iran has notified the IAEA it will convert 150 drums of yellowcake (below, right) into uranium hexafluoride (UF6):

Iran has begun processing a new batch of uranium despite Western pressure on it to halt sensitive atomic work, possibly harming attempts to defuse a standoff over its nuclear aims, a diplomat said on Wednesday.

Iran had notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in late October that it intended to process a new batch of uranium at its Isfahan uranium conversion plant but did not start the work last week as originally planned.

“Conversion has resumed,” the diplomat, who is close to the International Atomic Energy Agency, told Reuters.


Iran had told the IAEA that this conversion batch would involve 150 drums of raw yellowcake uranium. Once converted into uranium hexafluoride gas, the feed material for centrifuges, and enriched, this would be enough for an atom bomb.

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not give details on exactly what steps had been taken at the Isfahan plant other than to say the process of conversion had begun.

No indication on the size of each drum … but I would guess in the 300-400 kg range. Thoughts?

Dafna Linzer has the backstory on what this means for the Russian proposal to enrich Iranian UF6. (See my post, Give An Inch and They Swim All Over You).


The New York Times has an hilariously sloppy version claiming that Iran is “reprocessing” uranium at Esfahan (Isfahan).

“Reprocessing” is a specific word typically used to describe the recovery of plutonium (and sometimes uranium) from spent fuel—hence the prefix in reprocessing. Wikipedia, as always, has nice explanation.

Although the French reportedly agreed to build a reprocessing facility at Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center (ENTC) in the 1970s, there is no evidence the deal went down. Iran conducted reprocessing experiments at the Tehran Nuclear Research Centre (TNRC).

Since Iran can’t reprocess uranium at ENTC and doesn’t have any spent fuel (though they could experiment), the headline caught my attention.

By the ninth paragraph, it’s clear that the author—Richard Bernstein, as of late based out of Vienna but writing with a Berlin byline—intends to say that Iran has resumed “converting” yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride (or some of the steps in between) at the Uranium Conversion Facility:

After finishing the processing of one batch of uranium, the Iranians again stopped [converting uranium] at the Isfahan plant. Meanwhile, the Europeans, with the agreement of the United States, offered Iran the compromise formula whereby Iran could do some [conversion] work but its actual nuclear fuel would be produced in Russia.

“During that time, it was made clear to them that it would be very important while there were discussions about what to do about this facility for them not to operate it,” the diplomat said, referring to the Isfahan plant.

The resumption of conversion activiies comes just a a week before a scheduled meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog in Vienna, which will consider an American-supported proposal to refer Iranian nuclear activities to the Security Council for possible sanctions.


One thing to add: I’ve noticed French officials sometimes use “reprocess” in English (“processus de retraitement” in French) to describe conversion—see this official statement and this description of Esfahan.

That’s lazy too. The OECD uses the phrase “le conversion de ce concentrĂ© en hexafluorure” in French.

(Those of you with a little knowledge of my personal life will instantly recognize why I might forgive those with a French vocabulary for nuclear activities.)

Wonder if Bernstein’s source is a native French speaker …


  1. Bruno Tertrais (History)

    About the use of the word “reprocess” by the French. (1) The MoFA official statement is accurate, the French word “processus” and the English word “reprocess” have common linguistic roots, but there is no technical confusion here. (2) There is indeed an error in the comment accompanying the Esfahan photograph.

  2. Mark Hibbs (History)

    The remarks about the use of the French term “retraitement” are quite correct. It might also be pointed out that the Russian language is very vague on this subject, leading to innumerable errors in all kinds of official and non-official accounts during the 1990s when, with the Cold War coming to an end, we were all scrambling around Russian sites to get a grip on their previously-secret nuclear material stockpiles. The Russian term “pererabotka” usually means “reprocessing” of irradiated fuel. But Russian officials and documents to this day often use the term to mean any kind of nuclear material processing, from yellowcake production to fuel fabrication. If in the early ‘90s Russian officialdom was using “pererabotka” to keep us from knowing whether a site in Western Siberia was handling U3O8 or PuO2, nowadays use of this term for anything besides spent fuel reprocessing is, as Jeffrey says, pure laziness.