Jeffrey LewisIran Enriching "On Industrial Scale"


So, in case you missed it … some members of the news media are freaking out reporting Ahmadinejad’s claim that Iran is enriching uranium “on an industrial scale,” Larijani’s claim that Iran is running UF6 though 3,000 centrifuges,” and the usual pundits warnings that the end of the world is just around the corner … Repent!

Seriously people, you should just write it on a placard and wander the streets ringing a bell.

As far as I can tell, the technical people have said two things:

  • Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Director Gholamreza Aqazadeh said “With the entry into the stage of mass-production of centrifuges and the start of nuclear fuel production on an industrial scale and with several years of efforts and hopes bearing fruit, the (nuclear) project has entered a new stage.”
  • AEOI’s Mohammad Saiedi declined to say how many centrifuges Iran had, explaining “We enter the industrial stage after passing the pilot stage. … Our pilot stage included two cascades of 164 centrifuges; we passed the stage and entered the industrial level.”

As I read these statements, the Iranians are confirming what was reported the other day … that Iran has installed additional 164-machine cascades—maybe more than 1,000 centrifuges in total—at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz.

Three things worth keeping in mind, before you sell that nice little townhouse on Logan Circle and relocate to Montana:

  • 1,000 P1 centrifuges (assuming 2 kg SWU per machine) operating continuously require 23-29 months to enrich enough uranium for a bomb; 3,000 P1 centrifuges would take 8-10 months. Either way, we’ve still got time, probably two years assuming the centrifuges can operate continuously.
  • Iran still does not operate its centrifuges continuously. Based on Iran’s past consumption of UF6, Iran feeds gas into its centrifuges only about 20 percent of the time, suggesting the machines are either breaking down or that Iran cannot use its own UF6 as feedstock.
  • There is no evidence that Iran can mass produce the components of 3,000 centrifuges. The Iranians can claim mass production, but I want to see the evidence that Iran can mass produce ball bearings and maraging steel bellows for the P1. Diplomats have been saying Iran imported enough components for about 1,000 to 2,000 centrifuges. So, my guess is that Iran can make today’s announcement with what they bought from AQ Khan; they may run into problems when they try to push past that number.

All of this is to suggest that today’s announcement seems like a stunt.

After all, a few thousand P1 centrifuges is nowhere near industrial scale. A 1,000 MW(e) reactor requires something like 100,000 SWU each year to keep it fueled. Aqazadeh mentioned plans for an indigenous 360 MW(e) electric reactor—assuming 36,000 SWU to keep it fueled, Iran would need 18,000 P1 centrifuges. Good luck with that.

The technical people have 1-2 thousand reasons, however, to make this announcement now. If Iran relies on imported components, AEOI needs to make the big announcement now because installing more than 2,000 centrifuges or enriching large amounts of uranium may not be possible for a couple of years.

As for A-Bomb and the political people, they also have a motive to exaggerate Iran’s progress. Redefining Iran’s pilot efforts may help hardliners accuse pragmatists of trading away “industrial scale” enrichment capabilities—capabilities Iran does not yet have.

That’s a pretty neat trick. But I don’t see why we need to fall for it.


  1. Eli (History)

    We fall for it so the commodities traders have another reason to spike oil by $2.50 a barrel. Really a win/win for everybody.

  2. mike (History)

    But the best part was the flowers in front of MC Ahmadinejad. Like what is it with those guys and the flowers at press conferences?

    Its unfortunate you don’t do any TV appearances as you know this is going to be blown out of all proportion all week long without ahint of rational thought.

  3. abcd

    Perhaps there is an external as well as internal audience for these latest pronouncements; it could be that Iran is attempting to project a sense of strength after releasing the British sailors amidst rising international pressure.

  4. Anna (History)

    I wonder if PIPA/Knowledge Networks can do a misperception poll on this issue. Perhaps due to widespread concern about the state of progress of the Iranian nuclear program the Exec would consider dusting off the Federal Crisis Relocation Plan back from the 1980s and possibly substitute VT with MT?

    The Pintler Wilderness is very pretty.

  5. Robot Economist (History)

    Ohh, nice picture of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from “The Stand.” Very appropriate.

  6. Martin Ebbing (History)

    Well, Ahmadinejad said in his speach, in which he was supposed to deliver the “good news” that Iran has now reached the stage to produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale”, but he did not give any specifics.

    Since November last year he was announcing that there will be “good news” on the nuclear program very soon. On February 11, Revolution Day, he already had to postpone his promise and to postpone it to “national nuclear day” which was yesterday. He had to come up with something. Therefore his vage announcement.

  7. james

    i also heard they had a super-mega-killer-bomb in development that could strike my conservative party hq in under 45mins. any news?

  8. Binh (History)

    Of course the factual “nuances” are lost once again by the Corporate Media hell-bent on demonizing Iran.

  9. Geoff Forden (History)

    Much hangs on the question of just how far Iran has come in “mastering” the technology for manufacturing centrifuges. I’ve quickly scanned my collection of IAEA reports to see what the agency has said (partly because I was under the impression that the IAEA had concluded that Iran had mastered this production—now I’m not so sure.) What I found was that the agency has found a single document making reference to blueprints and calculations for a cascade of 2,000 centrifuges. The only reference I could find to delivery, from the Khan network, of centrifuge sets was for a total of 500 during the mid-1990s. (see the 27 February 2006 IAEA report.)

    What is the origin of the 2,000 centrifuge sets delivered? Is it different from the calculation of what such a cascade would look like?

    Of course, this is exactly one of the questions Iran has failed to properly answer. It is clear just how important it is for Iran to answer these questions because of their importance for estimating Iran’s capabilities and intentions. No diplomatic initiative to peacefully resolving the current crisis can proceed until Iran answers these questions.

  10. nzruss

    CNN just reported:

    “Iran’s uranium enrichment program in Natanz does not only aim to install 3,000 centrifuges, but 50,000 centrifuges,” Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization chief, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh said, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.”


    Given your comment: “There is no evidence that Iran can mass produce the components of 3,000 centrifuges” is it fair to say either someone is truly exaggerating their capabilities, or something got lost in the translation…..

    I’d be interested in your comments on this article, or perhaps it is just worth ignoring….

  11. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Re: 54,000

    Iran has always planned to put 50,000 or so centrifuges at Natanz.

    The question is how long it will take them to learn to manufacture the components to adequate tolerances.

  12. Robot Economist (History)

    Dr. J – Is it an unfair to assume that the technical skills required to go from operating one 164-centrifuge cascade to six cascades are the same as those required to go from six to eighteen cascades?

    The Bush administration seems to harp on Iran passing a ‘point of no return’ on enrichment. I was just wondering where you think that point would be, if it even exists.

  13. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I am told that things don’t quite scale linearly, but that it gets progressively easier.

    Rather than a “point of no return” I would think it is more of an inflection point, after which mastering ever larger cascades becomes somewhat easier.

    But that is my impression of what others—folks who really know what they are talking about—say.

  14. hass (History)

    “Either way, we’ve still got time, probably two years assuming the centrifuges can operate continuously….” and assuming that somehow as if by magic, the HIGHLY ENRICHED uranium is made without the notice of IAEA inspectors, and then the Nuclear Fairy helps Iran make a bomb out of the stuff in a matter of days.

  15. spacemanafrica

    They could just develop a nuclear weapon concurrently over those two years. It probably would take a little magic for Iran to do it in 2 but certainly not fairies, David Copperfield would suffice.

    By the by, the Nuclear Fairies would actually be gremlins if you think about it.

  16. Artabanos

    Yesterday Iran reported that after the installation of the 3000 centrifuges it will install all 50.000 examples in the following two years.

    I’d say that they are pretty confident at the moment and they have reasons to be if you ask me.

  17. hass (History)

    David Copperfield could just as easily do the same in Egypt, Japan, Argentina, Brazil…pretty much any country with any nuclear capability could theoretically one day build a bomb.

  18. yale (History)

    Dr. J wrote:

    After all, a few thousand P1 centrifuges is nowhere near industrial scale

    Depends on the industry…Fueling gigawatt reactors, no.

    Ramping up a weapons program, yes.———————-

    Hass wrote:

    pretty much any country with any nuclear capability could theoretically one day build a bomb.

    EXACTLYThat may be the most eminently sensible thing I have yet seen posted on this site.

    The laws of physics are the final reality.

    ’ …human society is too diverse, national passion too strong, human aggressiveness too deep-seated for the peaceful and the warlike atom to stay divorced for long. We cannot embrace one while abhorring the other;we must learn, if we want to live at all, to live without both.’ ——Jacques-Yves Cousteau, speech at UN conference 1976